CMS looks for better screening of workers

More than a year after a teacher's classroom heroin arrest spurred Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to pledge better screening of its employees, the district hasn't figured out how to do so.

For now, CMS watches its volunteers more thoroughly than its staff. The district checks criminal records when it hires employees or approves volunteers but continues monitoring N.C. arrest records only for the volunteers.

Superintendent Peter Gorman began to plan for ongoing monitoring of employees in June 2007, when an elementary school teacher was charged with having heroin and drug paraphernalia in his classroom. That teacher cleared his initial background check and was hired. But he was later charged with drug possession in Buncombe County. CMS officials didn't know about that arrest until after the heroin case.

Today, Gorman says his staff is still trying to work out the details of better criminal monitoring, including how to deal with a federal law that apparently requires employees to authorize checks of their credit, character and lifestyle, even if CMS only wants criminal records. The district backed off after an attempt to demand employee consent in February had staff up in arms. In March, Gorman wrote to all employees explaining that CMS would check only the criminal records, and planned to start doing so in the spring.

Gorman's latest estimate is that the daily monitoring will begin in November or December.

“When you don't do it right (the first time), you need to make sure you do it right,” he said.

Teachers support the criminal checks but still worry about being asked to sign away broader privacy rights, says Jennifer O'Kane-Fenk, an Ardrey Kell High teacher who leads a teacher group that advises Gorman. Even if the members trust Gorman, he could leave and new CMS officials would be authorized to delve into employees' personal lives, she said.

“People are totally willing to have their own criminal records checked,” she said. “They also would prefer not to be working next to criminals or to be associated with them. My credibility goes down every time a teacher does something crazy.”

Gorman said his staff also is exploring who would do the daily monitoring and what happens if an employee's arrest is revealed. It can take months for charges to work their way through court; the case is still pending against the teacher charged in the heroin incident 15 months ago. (He resigned from CMS immediately.)

Screening volunteers easier

Because no one's livelihood is at stake, screening of volunteers is easier.

Bud Cesena, head of CMS law enforcement, said his staff errs on the side of protecting children. For instance, if volunteers are charged with assault, domestic violence, drug or sex violations or any other type of crime that might indicate a danger to students, they're immediately banned from volunteering, even though they haven't been proven guilty. It's up to the volunteers to come back with follow-up information that might lead to their privileges being restored, Cesena said.

Since CMS launched its new volunteer-screening system on Nov. 30, 18,000 volunteers have been screened and 120 – fewer than 1 percent – have been rejected, according to Suzy Aldridge, the CMS investigative technician who handles the checks.

Almost all of those failed their initial screening, she said, including someone who applied to volunteer eight months after being released from prison on a first-degree murder sentence.

Only four people have been removed from the volunteer list because of the follow-up screening, which checks the volunteer roster against statewide arrests every day. Cesena and Aldridge decide when someone needs to be removed.

Driving violations, for instance, wouldn't stop a parent from volunteering at school, but that person could be blocked from driving students on a field trip.

Cesena recalls one mother whose background check revealed an indecent exposure charge, which she explained was linked to her past as an exotic dancer. He decided to clear her because the charge was dismissed and she was honest about what happened.

“She was a hoot to talk to,” he said. “She's a stay-home mom now, with five kids.”

The start of the school year has volunteer applications streaming in, as many as 350 a week. Volunteers who were approved before Nov. 30 of last year are required to reapply.

People who have lived in North Carolina at least seven years fill out an online form; those are processed within two days. Those who arrived more recently must fax an application to a contractor that checks records where they lived before.

That form has language similar to what rattled employees in the spring. The “Consumer Reports Release” authorizes the company to check “consumer credit information, criminal records, driving records, education transcripts and records, prior employment verification, workers compensation claims, civil court records and other pertinent information.”

Susan McNally, who used to live in Connecticut, was shocked when she was told she had to sign that form to chaperone a Blythe Elementary field trip to Biltmore House in Asheville.

“If I got an F in algebra my senior year, can I not go to Biltmore?” she asked. She had already paid $78 for the trip but wasn't sure she was willing to open all of her records to a company that isn't even named on the form, and to fax her driver's license and Social Security numbers.

CMS officials say the language comes from the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. It's similar to what new CMS employees and people seeking jobs with many private companies are expected to sign.

McNally's dilemma was resolved when CMS learned she had had a Connecticut records check done for CMS three years ago, when she started volunteering. A volunteer coordinator told her CMS can't simplify its latest consent form, even though the district has no interest in credit reports or academic records.

Like the teachers, she remains wary of signing away her privacy.

“Once you sign that paper, you've given them the legal right – whoever ‘they' are – to check into your entire life.”