State Politics

Proposals would stiffen NC teacher background checks

Fingerprint background checks would be required of applicants for licenses to teach in North Carolina under a proposal the State Board of Education reviewed Wednesday.

The board’s review of background check policies was instigated by a report in USA Today that highlighted weaknesses in teacher screening.

Current law requires local boards of education to have screening policies, but prohibits them from charging applicants to check their histories, said Katie Cornetto, the state board’s staff attorney.

Local districts are not required to do applicant fingerprint checks. USA Today said North Carolina is one of a few states to leave teacher background checks to local districts.

USA Today reported on a teacher who was hired by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system after his license was revoked in Georgia.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.

A task force backed by state Superintendent June Atkinson had recommended in 2010 several changes that were not adopted, including legislation to have the state board conduct fingerprint background checks.

Fingerprinting of all applicants would require a new law, about five additional State Bureau of Investigation employees, and a $50 fingerprinting fee for each applicant, Cornetto said.

Board vice chairman A.L. Collins said the state needs standardization, but questioned whether fingerprint checks would do any good.

Collins a former member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth school board, questioned the value of checking fingerprints because, he said, in his experience teachers who end up committing crimes don’t have criminal records. He wondered whether there were better ways to get information.

A board committee led by member Gregory Alcorn will vet the proposal and coordinate with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who has said he will pursue legislation on screening teacher applicants this year.

Currently, applicants for licenses must answer two questions about previous criminal convictions and license suspensions. The state could require applicants to answer questions about their moral character and fitness.

Another option is to have local districts join a national clearinghouse of teacher disciplinary actions.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner