Your child’s teacher likely wasn’t fingerprinted during hiring. Are students at risk?

North Carolina parents sent their children back to school this week with the expectation that students would be safe with their teachers.

But there’s one precaution in the hiring process that only a fraction of the state’s school districts are doing: fingerprinting teacher candidates. And some state lawmakers and activists think students are being put at risk.

“It’s deliberate childhood endangerment to not at least do fingerprint background checks,” said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, a national group that lobbies for tougher background checks of teachers. “Fingerprint background checks are the bare minimum they can do.”

Few North Carolina school districts fingerprint their K-12 school employees because it’s not required by state or federal law. They’ve only recently begun to fingerprint their Pre-K employees — mainly because a new federal requirement mandates it.

School districts say the current system, which relies on using district staff and outside vendors such as USInfoGroup to run background checks, is effective at screening out bad job applicants.

“As with many NC districts, we don’t do fingerprinting checks,” Janet DelPinal, a spokeswoman for Durham Public Schools, said in an email. “We feel confident in the local and national background check screening, and sex offender registry screening that USInfoGroup provides.”

But the background checks have failed in some highly publicized cases, including where two former Johnston County teachers were arrested this summer for allegedly falsifying their job credentials. One of those former teachers was hired despite having a history of criminal felony charges.

North Carolina made national headlines in 2016 when USA Today gave the state an F grade for screening people applying to become teachers. USA Today quoted a state task force report that said “many other states require fingerprint background checks before issuing a license.” It recommended that North Carolina follow suit.

Teacher fingerprinting bill stalls in NC legislature

In 2017, legislation was filed in the General Assembly to require that people applying for teacher licenses be fingerprinted for criminal background checks. The bill died in committee.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said the legislation encountered opposition from some teachers who felt fingerprinting was an invasion of their privacy.

“I disagree with them,” Horn said. “If they’re working with children, parents have a right and a need to be assured their children aren’t exposed to people with criminal intent.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, center, greets Rep Craig Horn, right, and Sen. Deanna Ballard before a discussion about Education Freedom Scholarships, a new federal school choice program, during a roundtable at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Ethan Hyman

Another reason the bill died was that teachers could have been required to pay the estimated $35 fee for the fingerprint check out of their own pockets.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the group has no problem with requiring fingerprinting. But he said employees shouldn’t foot the cost.

“We support the right that school districts have to do background checks,” Jewell said. “These are people working with our children. We think it’s the cost of doing business, and it’s the state’s responsibility to pay for it.”

In the absence of state oversight, employee background checks are left up to local school district control.

The lack of a uniform background check system has contributed to what Wake County parent A.P. Dillon calls a “quiet epidemic” of teachers committing crimes. Dillon has written about the issue on her blog.

“The long and short of it is that including fingerprinting in a background check is useful and more comprehensive,” Dillon said. “But what is key are how expansive the check is and how often it is repeated.

“Background checks were done in the majority of cases I have tracked over the years, but the offenses still occurred. There are no mechanisms in place to prevent crimes committed by educators, especially ones involving students.”

Schools try to vet newly hired teachers

More than 1,000 new Wake County teachers were hired over the summer for the new school year. A.J. Muttillo, Wake’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said all the new hires were thoroughly vetted by both employees at the individual schools and in the district’s human resources department.

A. J. Muttillo

Muttillo said the key is using multiple checks to authenticate each piece of information. For instance, he said teachers prove their credentials by providing their teaching license and exam test scores, which can be checked off the state website.

Muttillo said school and district staff look for red flags such as whether references said they’d hire the employee. Wake used to fingerprint applicants but now uses USInfoGroup to conduct criminal record checks and database checks.

“Even fingerprinting has holes in it because not every offense is fingerprinted,” Muttillo said. “If there’s a minor charge somewhere and that agency doesn’t fingerprint it doesn’t come up on a fingerprinting test.

“We’ve been pretty successful with using USInfoGroup and using the multiple states it can provide for us.”

Allison Bass, a fourth-grade teacher at Stough Elementary School in Raleigh, is one of Wake County’s new teachers after having spent the last two years as a student in China. Bass, 24, said she got used to providing her fingerprints in China and wouldn’t have objected to giving them to Wake to be hired.

“I have nothing in my background that I’m worried about,” Bass said. “More precautions are not a bad thing.”

Teachers accused of lying on job applications

The Johnston County school system is one of the many North Carolina school systems that don’t fingerprint job applicants. A fingerprint check might have uncovered multiple prior larceny and fraud arrests and convictions for Torians Hughes, who was a teacher and athletic coach at Cleveland High School.

According to a June arrest warrant, the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office said Hughes falsely put on his job application that he had never been found guilty or convicted of anything more than a minor traffic offense. The arrest warrant also said that Hughes lied on his job application about having a bachelor’s degree.

An arrest warrant was filed in July against Ivette Hughes, who is Torians Hughes’ wife and was a teacher at Four Oaks Middle School. Authorities say she also lied on her job application about having a college degree.

Both former teachers have been charged by authorities with obtaining property by false pretenses.

Johnston County school officials have said they can’t discuss much about the cases because they are ongoing law enforcement matters. But in a statement, the district said it has made changes such as hiring a person whose job in the Human Resource Department is to review documents for all new employees.

School districts who don’t run fingerprint checks of their new employees are running the risk of missing information about their criminal records, according to Charles Jeter, government relations coordinator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

“There have been things we caught through fingerprint checks that weren’t found in background checks,” Jeter said. “Background checks only work if they are exactly who they say they are.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is one of the few districts in the state to fingerprint school employees. But it made headlines recently for having secretly stopped the process.

In June, WBTV, the Charlotte Observer’s news partner, reported that employees hired in the past year were not fingerprinted as part of their background checks, a violation of the board’s policy.

CMS began using a new company to conduct background checks in June 2018. Fingerprinting was not part of the company’s screening process. Now-former Superintendent Clayton Wilcox later told WBTV that it was his decision to end fingerprinting.

New Superintendent Earnest Winston said he hopes to have all CMS employees fingerprinted in the next few weeks. The district pays the cost for the fingerprinting.

“It (fingerprinting) might only catch three or four people a year, but it’s probably worth it to the safety of the kids,” Jeter said.

Fingerprinting required for Pre-K workers

In contrast to K-12 school employees, the state has for the past few years required people who work in childcare facilities, such as pre-kindergarten programs, to be fingerprinted as part of a criminal background check. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Criminal Background Check Unit disqualified 1.2% of the 37,000 childcare applications in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to Kelly Haight, a DHHS spokeswoman.

DHHS had previously accepted the background checks done by school districts that operate Pre-K programs.

Haight said that’s not enough now because most school districts were only completing a state background check. She said childcare facilities that receive federal funding must now complete a national background check such as the kind that DHHS conducts.

Jeter says CMS thinks that since school districts must fingerprint pre-K workers then they must now fingerprint all their employees. He cites state law which says that school districts must apply criminal background checks uniformly to their employees.

Other school districts don’t hold CMS’s view on fingerprinting all their employees.

Miller of S.E.S.A.M.E. said it makes no sense that K-12 teachers don’t have to go through the same background checks as pre-K teachers.

“Children spend the majority of their time outside the home for 13 years in schools,” Miller said. “To not thoroughly vet the adults who are spending those years with children is negligent.”

As students adjust to the new school year, Muttillo of Wake County said parents should feel confident that their children’s teachers are who they say they are.

“We’ve got a good track record with bringing folks on with multiple checks that we do,” Muttillo said. “We don’t rely on just a criminal background check, or just a transcript, or just a report from an employee.

“The key to what we do is using multiple sources of information to try to authenticate the one piece of information. That’s where we’ve been able to be successful.”

Staff news researcher David Raynor contributed to this story.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.