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Newton Schools Look to Expand Teacher Background Check Procedures

The Background Investigation Team also presented its recommendations to the School Committee for addressing complaints in the district.

Facing concern and questions from Newton parents, the Newton Public School administration last night presented a number of recommendations for updating school employee background checks, including the addition of Sex Offender Registry (SORI) checks.

The district's Background Investigation Team, which was formed in the wake of , informed the School Committee last night that the district will soon implement Sex Offender Registry checks for all new hires.

According to District Director of Human Resources Heather Richards, the SORI check "furthers the protection of the children," in the district.

Richards explained SORI checks include registration of any sex offense convictions filed with the state, regardless of whether the offense occurred in Massachusetts. This check will come in addition to the current Criminal Offender Registry (CORI) check that the district does with both new hires and current employees. 

Richards said the team also recommends the district adopt the current CORI check policy used on Newton's municipal side, to keep things consistent throughout the city.

To view the Investigation Team's presentation, check out the .pdf above.

The Background Investigation Team, which is made up of Richards, City Solicitor Donnalyn Khan, City Director of Human Resources Dolores Hamilton and Newton Police Lt. Edward Aucoin, came together to assess the district's current hiring practices and policies as well as its background check procedures. 

In January, Underwood Elementary teacher David Ettlinger and indecent assault and battery. He is currently in Louisiana for his involvement with a global child pornography site. 

A week after Ettlinger's arrest, a city employee who worked at the public library .

An 'Act to Protect Children'

One key recommendation from the Investigation Team was for the School Committee and city to put their support behind a piece of legislation known as the "Act to Protect Children." 

The legislation, which was proposed by State Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), would allow Massachusetts to have access to the FBI fingerprinting database. Massachusetts is currently the only state that does not have access to this database.

"This is really important for us," Richards said. "It essential for us to further protect our students' safety [and] guarantees us the ability to look and see what’s out there as far as the national criminal database."

If the state lawmakers pass the legislation, and the city adopts it as well, the district would be able to see any criminal instances where a potential hire was fingerprinted. 

To view a memo from the Team, including a copy of the legislation, click the .pdf above.

According to the Background Investigation Team, this FBI fingerprint database would help close the gap in finding past criminal activity in states that normally have closed records in SORI and CORI checks. 

Mayor Setti Warren put his support behind the legislation, noting that it is "critically important" it moves forward.

If adopted, the FBI fingerprint check would cost the district $75 per new hire, the group said.

Process for addressing complaints

In addition to implementing SORI checks and supporting the "Act to Protect Children" the Background Investigation Team also recommended formalizing the employee complaint procedure (both internally and externally) to make sure there is consistency throughout the district. 

Since Ettlinger's arrest in January, a number of parents have expressed concern . 

According to Superintendent David Fleishman, information will soon be posted on the district's Human Resources website outlining steps to take if someone wishes to file a complaint about a school employee. 

In addition, the district's Human Resources Department will work with the city's Law Department to update training for employees and administrators on how to address, investigate and document complaints. 

Other options

Throughout their assessment, the Background Investigation Team said it considered a number of background check options the district could consider moving forward. 

For example, the group looked at hiring a third party background check company, which would perform "basic" background checks for all district employees. However, the group estimated the cost for the third party company would come in at around $200,000 per year. 

Another option would be for the district to hire an additional 1.5 full-time equivalent position (FTE) to help in the district's HR department, running the district roughly $95,000.

In addition, the group said it researched options such as psychological and drug testing, but found that the cost outweighed the benefits, and that it would require additional staffing. Moreover, the CORI and SORI checks have a solid backing when it comes to a decision on whether to hire an employee, and would stand up better in a court case.

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