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Teachers with criminal backgrounds still in classrooms, audit finds


Jefferson City, MO –

To read the audit, click here.

Teachers with criminal records and histories of child abuse continue to work with children, despite state laws intended to bar such offenders from the Missouri classrooms. That's according to a new state audit released Monday.

Auditor Susan Montee concluded that imprecise language within those laws, coupled with unclear guidelines offered to local school districts, has allowed some teachers to improperly obtain state certification.

"Inadequate state laws are causing a risk for our students," Montee said.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires prospective teachers to submit fingerprints to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which conducts criminal background checks. Local school districts also are required to follow that procedure.

The law also calls for background checks of prospective teachers using the state Family Care Safety Registry, a broader database that includes documented reports of child abuse and neglect, foster parent license denials and other red flags.

The family care registry is maintained by a third state agency, the Department of Health and Senior Services. That registry requires an individual's name, date of birth and Social Security number. But the law says the Highway Patrol should use fingerprints for such searches.

"We have multiple agencies working on this," said Jim Morris, an education department spokesman. "The system is not feasible at this point."

Still, some local districts require their teachers to submit to the family care registry. Of more than 300,000 certified teachers in Missouri, only 8% voluntarily registered.

State auditors found 77 teachers from that group were listed as having an "adverse background history" on the family care registry a statistic that could include both criminal records and child abuse reports.

The audit identified 194 violators who held Missouri teaching licenses but were not assigned to public classrooms in the 2006-07 school year.

When auditors reported those findings with the education department, the agency responded that it knew about 22 of the offenders but still cleared them for certification. State law prohibits the Board of Education from issuing teaching certificates to people found guilty of most violent crimes but offers discretion for lesser offenses.

In 50 other cases, the education department was unaware of the teachers' adverse backgrounds, according to the audit.

Montee suggested that the education department broaden its background checks of prospective teachers by requiring job applicants to provide proof of a valid Social Security number. This requirement would allow the agency to also use the family care registry.

The audit notes that the Missouri School Boards Association asks its members to require the broader background checks and calls for lawmakers to clean up the laws' language while providing more money to the three state agencies for such added scrutiny.

The audit also identified shortcomings in the education department's collection of teacher Social Security numbers.

A review of more than 375,000 teacher records found 675 invalid numbers. Most of those Social Security numbers come from college transcripts rather than original documents, an education department official told auditors.

In a written response to the audit, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education noted that those erroneous numbers represent "an error rate (that) is minute and does not warrant the added cost or burden to colleges and/or individual applicants."

Among the other recommendations, the audit calls for periodic reviews of teachers' backgrounds after they're certified a position echoed by the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.

Under state law, only teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2005 or those seeking certification in another specialty must undergo criminal background checks.

The education department would support such broader reviews, Morris said. He noted the agency at one time conducted background checks of licensed teachers before budget cuts forced that practice to cease.

"It's a resource question," he said. "It's a matter of manpower, time and money."