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Employee screening scrutinized at local schools

Rob Bhatt

Could a convicted murderer get a job at the Lake Tahoe Unified School District?

It briefly happened earlier this school year, said LeAnne Kankel, the district’s personnel director. The situation led to closer scrutiny of new hires.

The employee had fingerprints taken at the time of his hiring in September, and copies were sent to the California Department of Justice and the FBI.

Within about a week, however, a different district employee recognized the new hire as a person with a prior conviction.

After checking out these suspicions, district officials confirmed the murder conviction and terminated the new employee for “lying on his job application,” Kankel said. Due to confidentiality issues, she did not release the name or job title of the former employee.

The state and federal agencies did not return the results of their background checks on the man until February, long after he was terminated. Kankel shudders to think that the convicted felon could have been working near children during the roughly five months the fingerprints were being processed.

“We could have had a Rio Linda right here,” Kankel said on Tuesday.

Last fall’s incident prompted closer cooperation between the district and the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.

Since October, district officials have forwarded a copy of new hires’ fingerprints to the local department, which completes its criminal record checks within 72 hours. Copies of fingerprints are still also sent to the Department of Justice and FBI.

State officials say the turnaround time for records checks take 15 to 17 days, although local school officials say the process takes longer.

Lawmakers and school district officials across California are reviewing screening policies for new school employees in the wake of events at Sacramento’s Rio Linda High School.

There, a community is shocked that the murder suspect, a substitute janitor, was hired last month despite prior convictions for manslaughter and robbery.

Kankel says LTUSD has been examining its policies for a few years.

California requires schools to submit fingerprints of all new, permanent employees to the state and federal crime prevention agencies. Employees can begin work while the prints are checked, a process that often takes months.

The process is similar in Nevada, where copies of fingerprints are forwarded for review to the Nevada Highway Patrol Crime Services Division and the FBI.

George Mross, assistant superintendent for personnel services for the Douglas County School District, said applicants are notified about the criminal records check and asked to disclose prior convictions.

He estimates there were about five cases during the past eight years where background checks revealed prior convictions, primarily drunken driving, not listed on applications.

“It became an issue of dishonesty,” Mross said. “On that basis, we terminated them.”

Prior to having local police conduct the background checks, Kankel said the waiting period also resulted in a few cases at LTUSD where new employees started working despite prior convictions. In these cases, the employees were fired when the state and federal records checks revealed the past offenses.

Districts have authority to adopt policies more stringent than the state code, and Kankel believes such action is appropriate.

California law prevents teachers from obtaining credentials or continued employment if they have convictions for violent, sex or drug-related offenses.

The state policy on non-credentialed employees, including janitors, bus drivers and clerks, is that they cannot be hired if they have a prior drug or sex-related offense. However, those with convictions for other, violent offenses are not formally prohibited from these non-credential jobs.

The state also does not require fingerprint checks on temporary employees.

Based on initial reports out of Rio Linda, Kankel believes the Grant Joint Union High School District’s actions were inappropriate.

“They followed the letter of the law,” she said. “The problem is, the law is extremely flawed.”

Kankel said LTUSD generally will not hire employees with any prior felony convictions.

Similarly, Mross said that any applicant with a felony conviction is an unlikely candidate for a job in Douglas County’s schools.

The Nevada district reviews applicants with prior convictions listed on applications on a case-by-case basis. Factors taken into consideration include the nature of the offense and the time that has elapsed since the conviction.

“There would have to be a compelling reason for us to consider someone who has had some troublesome activity in their background,” Mross added. “We like to think of us as being role models, and (past criminal conduct) is not a role we would like to reward.”


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