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February 12, 2009

Long Delays Identified for Criminal Background
Checks for School Employees

157 Individuals Working at Schools Around State
Without Necessary Criminal Background Checks
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Criminal background checks for some individuals applying for jobs in schools were subject to long delays, resulting in some individuals working at schools for several months before their criminal background checks were complete, according to an audit issued today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. Auditors also identified one individual that worked in a school for three months who would have been denied clearance for employment because of his criminal background.

“When it comes to children, safety has to come first,” DiNapoli said. “That did not happen and kids were put at risk. Some background checks were delayed for as long as two years because no one was monitoring their status. In the meantime, some of these individuals were working in our schools with our kids. The State Education Department must improve their oversight over this program and work with schools to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to make sure our kids are safe.”

The Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act, which became effective in July 2000, requires applicants for teaching and most other positions in New York’s public schools to be checked for criminal histories. The act does not specify a particular timeframe but states that checks should be completed “promptly.” The act allows school districts to hire individuals on a conditional basis before their background checks are complete, if approved by their school board or SED.

Auditors examined State Education Department’s (SED) monitoring of background checks from March 2006 to August 2008. SED oversees background checks for schools outside New York City. Auditors found 469 background checks had not been completed and had been in process for an average of at least eight months. One application was outstanding for at least 27 months.

Because SED was not monitoring the status of background checks, it did not know that most of these background checks could not be completed because of data transmission failures or blurred fingerprint images. These background checks were only completed after DiNapoli’s auditors intervened.

Auditors found that at least 157 of the 469 applicants being checked had been hired by public schools before their background checks were completed. Thirty of the 157 had some kind of criminal history, including charges such as assault and criminal possession of a controlled substance. See list of 30 schools that hired individuals with some type of criminal history.

According to SED officials, only one of these individuals would have been denied clearance for employment. In this individual’s case, the school actually hired and terminated the person eight months before it even asked for a background check. The individual had been convicted of gross sexual imposition.

Auditors did find some other cases where school districts did not ask for background checks in a timely manner. Auditors examined the hiring practices of 14 school districts and found that nine of the school districts had hired employees between two and 10 months prior to requiring background checks for individuals. In fact, two of the school districts had already terminated the employees when they required the background checks for the individuals.

The audit recommends SED:

  • Modify the electronic system to track the status of each application and identify those that are outstanding;
  • Monitor how long it takes to complete background checks and notify applicants and school districts if it will take longer;
  • Track the dates that applicants are hired and terminated and instruct school districts to enter information in a timely manner; and
  • Ensure that school districts are requesting background checks in a timely manner.

SED officials generally agreed with the audit’s findings and recommendations. They state that the audit covered a period of crucial transition when the work flow process was undergoing dramatic change from a largely paper-based process to an electronic process. During this period, SED had significant work backlogs. SED claims it has addressed the problems that led to the delays. SED’s full response is included in the audit.

SED receives about 50,000 applications a year for background checks.

Government Accountability
The Office of the State Comptroller regularly audits state agencies, public authorities and New York City agencies. Auditors ensure that programs achieve their established goals, funds are used efficiently and assets are adequately protected against fraud, waste and abuse. DiNapoli’s office completes approximately 200 state audits annually and identifies hundreds of millions in savings and fraud each year.

Click here for a copy of the audit.

Click here for a list of the schools.


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