Why are Some Teachers’ Troubled Pasts Eluding Background Screening?

Why are Some Teachers’ Troubled Pasts Eluding Background Screening?


It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Considering that we trust them with our most valued members of society, you’d think teachers would go through stringent, detailed background checks. But often teachers and administrators can be hired with barely any background check at all, or a background check that doesn’t find the most important data. Why is this happening, and how can schools and parents prevent it?

Check Marks

There are a few fundamental issues at play for hiring teachers, and many of them make it difficult to effectively check the backgrounds of teachers. One of the biggest problems, by far, is that public schools have no trustworthy background tools provided to them.

There’s no better example of this than the Rapback scandal in Ohio, the results of which are still unfolding. The Rapback system was supposedly an effort by the state of Ohio to offer speedy, simple background checks for schools and other state organizations that work with children. Supposedly it was triggered by arrests, but over 600 arrests failed to appear in the system. Fingers have been pointing left and right: Some blame the software and its lack of updates, others claim the arrests were improperly entered in the system by mistake, still others state that operators of the system failed to push through reports. But the fact remains that educators were told their hires would be properly checked, and they were not.

Another issue is that most school administrators and teachers are educators, not background check experts. One instructive case in Tennessee had a school administrator dismissed from his role in one school system for inappropriate interaction with students. But he was able to manipulate the system, using references who were unaware of his misbehavior and relying on the lack of an effective background check system. He knew that his past superior likely wouldn’t be contacted, that they wouldn’t request his background files, and that because he had been disciplined inside the educational system instead of the courts, his dangerous behavior wouldn’t appear on the standard paperwork. In fact, the only way he was discovered was because someone who’d once worked with him anonymously tipped off the school district. Without that, he might still have access to children.

Both teachers and students deserve peace of mind.

In turn, that leads to yet another issue; every state’s background check requirements and background check systems are different. As we can see above, even within the state themselves, a messy patchwork system that fails to check both public records and internal discipline reports. A teacher who manages to keep misbehavior out of the newspapers and off their criminal record can easily go to another state and secure employment with no one the wiser, provided they know how to work the system.

But why is this even an issue in the first place? The reality on the ground is that many school districts are struggling with funding, staffing, and time issues. Simply put, even the best administrator may not have the time to check backgrounds, and they may not have the resources. And if they do, then all this former teacher needs to do is find an administrator who doesn’t have the time and will hire a teacher who looks good on paper without looking too closely. So how do districts and administrators ensure they’re getting the right personnel?

Checking Back

The first step is building a detailed background check process. Many schools simply don’t have this as part of their hiring process, either focusing on an outdated method of only checking a handful of references, or complying with a hodgepodge of state laws designed as much to pander to voters as to genuinely protect children. So it begins with establishing a process that works.

It’s true that administrations have many stakeholders to cater to. In addition to parents and politicians, administrators also need to work with unions, other teachers, and advocacy groups. They also need to comply with state and federal law, both as it applies to teachers and public employees, and as it applies to employees in general. Just as there’s a patchwork of requirements for background checks in state school systems, state by state, and above all this is federal law, which is very clear about how and when you can take adverse action over employment based on what you find in a background check. The first step is to find out how these laws apply across all these levels.
Once you’ve established what you can look at, you need to analyze how you look at it. While there’s nothing wrong with calling references and running background checks, one thing our case studies above show us is that there can be substantial gaps. Regardless of whether you have references from their past jobs, for example, you should follow up on every job your applicant has had in any school system. And don’t forget about the basics; in our Tennessee example cited above, a simple check of a search engine would have found out the misdeeds in question.

Also ask yourself what standards you want to apply. It’s fairly common, for example, for teachers to get in trouble for personal decisions that have no bearing on their jobs. In some cases, a campaign to get teachers dismissed will begin over something as simple as a photo of them drinking out of a red plastic cup. Designing a strict policy that focuses exclusively on the job, and not on irrelevant personal information, will help limit issues and contain potential problems.

No matter how you ultimately design your background check process, it’s important to put your students first. As we’ve seen above, too often applicants are taken at their word in the education system and its hiring process. That not only exposes children to risk, it also can place the school district squarely in legal hot water. That said, it can be a difficult legal thicket to navigate, one that can often intimidate administrators and teachers who care about building a better school, not complicated laws. But by building a strong, detailed background check process, they can better do their jobs and protect their charges. Start with a detailed background check: Request a free background check trial today.