Background Checks Miss the Mark

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The teacher arrived with excellent credentials and more than 20 years of experience in the classroom when he accepted a position last year at a private school in Menlo Park.

What the school didn’t know — until informed by the Almanac — was that he also came with a trail of allegations of child molestation involving students he taught at previous schools in three states, starting in the 1970s.

The school didn’t know because like most other schools, public and private, it conducted only the state-mandated criminal history check, and the teacher had never been charged with a crime or prosecuted. A simple Google search for the teacher’s name, however, would have revealed a great deal and raised alarms.

“We of course take these allegations seriously, and we will investigate them immediately,” the principal of the school wrote in an email to the Almanac after being informed of the prior allegations. “We will be treating this as a confidential personnel matter and will have no further comment.” Within a week, the teacher no longer worked at the school.

 

Apart from schools conducting more careful background checks that include Internet searches, preventing similar experiences is easier said than done.

According to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the state maintains a confidential database of complaints against teachers in public schools, but can only publicly disclose “final adverse actions” taken. In this case, those actions would come about only after charges or convictions. As a result, the teacher referred to in this article retains his state teaching credential.

The state doesn’t maintain a similar database for private schools, which don’t require teaching credentials and essentially operate as independent businesses, according to the California Department of Education.

The Almanac surveyed public and private schools in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Atherton, and Mountain View to find out whether any conducted a more thorough background check than mandated by state law. Administrators were more comfortable discussing their policies off the record. Only three of the 18 schools said they used Internet and social media searches as part of the hiring process.

Of the schools that do, the searches generally came about as a result of prospective hires listing online profiles, such as Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, on their applications. One human resources administrator at a school that conducts informal Internet searches described the state-mandated process as adequate, but not perfect.

“I think the current process identifies people with criminal histories. Obviously if the person has never been arrested, it doesn’t help. Also people change over time. There is no way to predict the future,” she said. “I think reference checks are only slightly helpful. Because of legal problems, people may give very positive references, but will almost never say anything negative.”

Teaching history

The Almanac was tipped off by a former friend and colleague of the teacher living out-of-state who had sought to reconnect with the teacher after losing contact years earlier. Much to the friend’s surprise, when she began searching the Internet for his name she came across several newspaper reports about molestation allegations.

When she tracked him down and found that he was still teaching, she became concerned and began reconnecting with other former colleagues and students to help her decide what to do.

She discovered several of his former students who revealed that the teacher had molested them and who were willing to share their stories publicly. Three had previously filed police reports that led to investigations in California, including one within the last year about incidents that occurred during the 1970s. No charges have ever been brought because time allotted by the statute of limitations had passed. None of the victims has filed civil lawsuits against the teacher.

His name has not been disclosed because the incidents are alleged to have happened so long ago, the teacher has never been arrested or charged or sued, and he denied the allegations through his attorney. He has retired from teaching now and left California, the attorney said.

 

Read Background Check by Valerie McGilvrey Backgroundcheckcover

1 Comment on Background Checks Miss the Mark

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