District must improve its screening process

Enhanced background checks are an important tool for the Beaufort County School District and other S.C. groups that work with children.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMarch 20, 2014 

It's time for the Beaufort County School District to conduct thorough, nationwide screenings of volunteers and potential employees to ensure student safety. And we encourage other school districts and groups that work with children to let go of false assumptions about their current practice of background checks and follow suit.

At issue is the failure of the district's existing screening process to detect the felony arrest record of a Bluffton High School girls basketball assistant who allegedly fought with one of her players in February. And one other volunteer and several employees have faced charges in recent months for inappropriate conduct with teenage students. The incidents have convinced district officials that more could be done to protect students.

There are no assurances that a bolstered screening process would have prevented many of these recent incidents. But we understand and support the district's desire to do something vs. sit on its hands. Student safety should be a priority that jolts a school board into action.

The district has come up with a reasonable and fiscally responsible plan of action to hire an outside company within the month to conduct background checks that will be nationwide in scope, including searches of name aliases and address histories.

The new screening process would replace one that just isn't working.

Currently, the district relies on internal software to conduct background checks on volunteers. It seems that the system did not work properly, failing to pick up on the felony arrest of the basketball assistant.

Meanwhile, potential employees must pass background checks by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. Those checks give incomplete results and should raise safety concerns not just for the Beaufort County School District, but for most of the state's school districts as well as hundreds of day cares, summer camps and afterschool programs that also rely on SLED checks to screen potential employees.

Many parents and state residents falsely believe that a SLED check yields a complete criminal record of an individual.

Not so. The checks reveal only arrests that happened in South Carolina. And that's assuming that the local law enforcement agency where the arrest occurred forwards the information along to SLED.

The result: Entities entrusted with children have limited information about their employees and volunteers.

They don't know about an arrest that happened in North Carolina. And they may not know about an arrest in a neighboring S.C. county if the police department there was sloppy and didn't send the record to SLED's office in Columbia.

And as SLED officials have said often enough, the background checks are name-based, which can result in false positive and false negative search results.

A fingerprint-based search is the most reliable way to conduct criminal records checks. But fingerprint searches cost more money than most school districts and groups are willing or able to spend.

The Beaufort County School District appears on track to implement screenings that will be more thorough and nationwide in scope -- without breaking the bank. District leaders have yet to determine the cost of its increased effort, but do not anticipate it exceeding the nearly $22,000 it spent last fiscal year on checks.

Ultimately, there is no fail-safe way to ensure that a background check includes all criminal records. And there is no safeguard against the hiring of "bad apple" volunteers and employees who have never been arrested.

But that shouldn't prevent the school district and groups from doing as much as they reasonably can to protect students. Safety should always be a top priority.

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