There is a nearly universal expectation that when we sign our children up for sports, they will be safe. Parents put an enormous amount of trust into the people who are caring and coaching our kids, some of whom spend upwards of 10 hours a week playing sports.
Helping keep kids safe – especially while in extracurricular activities – via screening coaches and volunteers is part of our mission at Protect Youth Sports. That’s why we are stupefied when things like this happen.
Just last week, a local news station from Austin, Texas reported that a former teacher and high school track coach faces criminal charges for improper relationship between a teacher/coach and student and indecency with a child by sexual contact. While this is shameful enough, it’s even more troubling when you consider the same teacher/coach was fired from his previous position after it was discovered he was sending inappropriate emails to a female student.
So, the question is: how did this teacher and coach slip through the cracks of the current school district’s screening process?
The answer is surprising.
First, it’s important to understand how a public school employee’s personnel file is treated. A public school employee’s personnel file is public information for anyone who requests to see it. That file includes all sorts of information, including any disciplinary issues with that employee. But school districts may not ask for those records when they hire a teacher or coach. Why? In the case of the Austin teacher, here’s what the answer is:
“The head of human resources at Pflugerville ISD says it’s not standard procedure among school districts to request personnel files. “The personnel file is voluminous and often does not have information of concern in it,” said Dr. Rhonda McWilliams of PISD.”
Second, some school districts may be operating under the assumption that a thorough investigation into the personnel files of new hires would take too long and slow down the hiring process. As long as a school district does what the law requires – in most cases: a criminal background check, a verification of a valid teaching certificate, and reference checks – then they have met the standards of on boarding a new teacher. The rub on that is that an employee’s personnel file may include other run-ins with the law, like offenses for drinking and driving or identity theft. Most employee personnel files only contain major offenses like abuse, sexual contact with a student, drugs or stealing money from the school.
Third, there is a way for a teacher to scrub his/her file, if he/she is being removed from a position for disciplinary reasons. It’s called a ‘separation agreement’ and it basically binds school districts from disclosing the real reason a teacher was fired. The agreement is usually something that happens to prevent a lawsuit or lengthy legal battle; the teacher agrees to resign and the school district agrees to put the details of the offense(s) into a confidential file that future employers might never get their hands on.
What can parents do about this?
Parents can do a little digging themselves into the backgrounds of teachers/coaches. In most states, you can submit a written public information request to the public information office of your child’s school district for the teacher’s personnel file. You can even ask for their service record which discloses all the positions they’ve held at all school districts in their career.
Also, find out who your school district employs to conduct background checks and what types of information they collect. You may find it’s not enough.
What can school districts do to improve their background checks?
The safest and smartest move any school district can make is to review their background check policies and make sure they’re meeting more than just minimum standards in screening. Take a look at what Pennsylvania is doing. The state is really setting the bar for other states to meet when it comes to protecting school kids from predators.
Partner with a nationally-accredited screening firm. Protect Youth Sports understands the dilemma facing extracurricular activities. You want to provide the best talent for your students and facilities for your educators and coaches, but budgets aren’t unlimited. You need to find smart, affordable, well-rounded solutions that mitigate any risk. That’s what we provide with our comprehensive screening solution for the education industry.