Tuesday, September 17, 2013

State board says all teachers should be fingerprinted

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — The Kansas State Board of Education is proposing that teachers and administrators who are currently licensed should undergo fingerprint and background checks when they renew their licenses so their names can be checked against criminal databases.

But the board did not propose asking the legislature to strengthen an existing law that requires local prosecutors to report all cases in their jurisdiction involving crimes that can disqualify someone from holding an educator license.

That was what board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, first suggested last month after learning that only 14 of the state's 105 county prosecutors had filed such a report with the department in the past two years.

At that time, the board acted to revoke licenses, or not issue new licenses, to six educators who'd been convicted of disqualifying crimes, including four who'd engaged in unlawful sexual activity with students.

But today, Willard said having the state board taking regulatory action on its own, instead of seeking legislative action, would be more effective.

"Getting legislation put in effect, in my view, would be more difficult than doing it this way, and we have the authority to do it," Willard said after the vote.

The state board rejected a similar proposal in 2011 amid opposition from the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Kansas has been requiring new teachers to be fingerprinted since 2002, but so far the rule has never applied to those who became licensed before then. State officials say roughly 35,000 teachers and administrators are currently practicing in Kansas who have never undergone a fingerprint check through the Department of Education.

"Unless they voluntarily disclose to us what they've been convicted of, we never know," Scott Gordon, an attorney for the department, said. "Have there been cases where a person has reapplied over and over for a license and we didn't know about certain convictions? Yes. That's a real thing."

Currently, new teachers submit fingerprints and pay a $50 fee when they apply for their initial license. They also pay an additional fee each time they get their license renewed for a service called "Rap Back," which automatically notifies the education agency when someone who has submitted fingerprints through them is arrested or charged with a crime.

The proposed new regulation would bring veteran teachers into that program. Applicants only have to submit one set of fingerprints, and pay the $50 fee only once, but they continue to pay what amounts to $3 per year to pay for the department's participation in Rap Back.

In addition to the fingerprint requirement, the board also endorsed:

• Developing an electronic form that can be sent to prosecutors each month, requesting monthly report on felony arrests, convictions, or criminal diversion agreements in their jurisdiction so the names of those people can be cross checked against the database of licensed educators.

• Asking the Kansas Supreme Court's education liaison to include information about the reporting requirement in their meetings with local prosecutors.

• Asking the attorney general, as it did in 2011, to send letters again to all local prosecutors, calling their attention to the reporting requirement.

• And asking for assistance from the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association in reminding prosecutors of the requirement.

The board will have to vote on the new rule at least two more times before it takes effect: once to publish a public notice of the official language, submit it for review by the attorney general's office and to schedule a public hearing; and again to adopt the final regulation.