June Atkinson defends NC process of screening new teachers

State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson said Thursday that North Carolina is doing an effective job of screening applicants, even though a USA Today report found the state does a poor job of catching educators who had been disciplined in other states.

Last month, USA Today gave North Carolina an F grade for weak screening of applicants and for not sharing teachers’ misconduct with other states. But in her report at Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting, Atkinson said that more than 800 teachers and job applicants have had their licenses denied, suspended or revoked by the state since 1995.

“I’d say that our success rate is over 99 percent,” Atkinson said in an interview after the meeting. “Of course having just one person in the classroom who should not be there is one too many. But in the big scheme of things, I think that our system has been effective over 99 percent of the time.”

The USA Today investigation, which looked at all 50 states, has resulted in calls around the country from newspapers, elected officials and education officials for changes in the way teacher applicants are screened.

To highlight North Carolina’s situation, USA Today reported on a teacher who was hired by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system after his license was revoked in Georgia. The teacher had been investigated in Georgia for physical altercations with students and for sending improper text messages that were sexual in nature to a student.

USA Today reported that North Carolina is one of the few states that leaves background checks of teachers to local school districts. A task force backed by Atkinson had recommended in 2010 several changes that were not adopted, including passing legislation to have the State Board of Education conduct fingerprint background checks of teacher applicants.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, said the board will discuss at its April meeting whether to recommend that legislators make changes to the screening process.

School districts are required to adopt a policy on employee background checks. It’s optional whether districts do fingerprint checks, but if they do they have access to state and federal records that the state Board is not authorized to view.

The Wake County school system, the state’s largest, doesn’t conduct fingerprint checks, according to Lisa Luten, a school district spokeswoman. Instead, she said Wake hires a vendor to conduct background checks for all new employees.

Special Deputy Attorney General Laura Crumpler told the state board that local districts are required to report to the state any information from the checks that could lead to a license being denied, revoked or suspended. Crumpler also noted that the state has access to a national database of teachers who have been disciplined.

“Notwithstanding the report from USA Today and any follow-up reports, this board and the department have done a really excellent job with making sure that the teachers that enter the profession have been adequately checked,” Crumpler said.

USA Today reported that states have failed to report the names of thousands of disciplined teachers to that national database. Vanessa Jeter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Instruction, said the legal staff has been submitting names of disciplined teachers who were missing from the database, since being contacted by USA Today.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui