When hiring new teachers, K-12 school administrators and parents often take comfort in the safety net of fingerprinting. They see it as a foolproof way to catch individuals who’ve had brushes with the law – and to avoid those who might pose a risk to students.
Across the country, news headlines announce with alarming frequency the arrests of teachers, coaches and even school volunteers. District administrators are left to wonder how their fingerprint checks could have missed the warning signs.
As it turns out, there is wide variation in the methods that school districts across the country use to check the background of incoming teachers. In 2016, USA Today conducted an investigation into how schools vetted teachers. What it found was a “patchwork system of laws and regulations — combined with inconsistent execution and flawed information sharing between states and school districts” that failed to “keep teachers with histories of serious misconduct out of classrooms and away from schoolchildren.”
In Massachusetts, for example, all teachers are subject to a national background check that includes fingerprinting. By contrast, in North Carolina, the decision to conduct a background check is at the discretion of the school district, and only a fraction conduct fingerprinting.
More states are passing laws requiring schools to fingerprint teachers. In June, the New York State Senate passed the Fingerprint bill, making fingerprinting and background checks a requirement for nonpublic and private schools as they evaluate prospective employees.
However, if states only require fingerprinting, schools often choose to skip more comprehensive background checks and rely solely on this method. But doing so can put their students’ safety at risk. Though fingerprinting is an important tool for vetting and evaluating candidates, the surprising truth is: There’s only so much a school district can learn about a potential employee when relying only on this type of check.
Everyone knows that fingerprints are as unique as snowflakes, making them a highly accurate tool for identifying criminals. But the use of prints alone to accurately identify a person or to verify additional details of their background is insufficient.
Although it’s commonly believed that anyone who is arrested is fingerprinted, there are some crimes that don’t require prints to be captured. Further, national, state and local databases are incomplete.
For example, according to the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), “the major gaps in Virginia’s Central Criminal Records is a prime example of why fingerprint-based background checks should not be solely relied upon when conducting background screening. In Virginia, more than 750,000 criminal records were missing, including murder convictions, drunk driving arrests, family abuse and drug charges, among others. In 90% of the cases, this was due to missing fingerprints.”
Likewise, the FBI database of fingerprints and biometric data (face recognition capabilities) is also incomplete and contains potential inaccuracies. States are under no mandate to keep it current, which means they may fail to report arrest records or court dispositions.
Another challenge is that database searches for fingerprints can only be performed when granted access by state or federal statute.
By contrast, a comprehensive background check ensures that administrators gain a complete picture of the candidate. This is especially important as almost nine out of 10 employers believe that some percentage of candidates misrepresent themselves on applications and or resumes, according to the HireRight 2019 Employment Screening Benchmarking Report.
According to PBSA, by conducting a comprehensive background check, schools can:
Further, a national background check will uncover missteps or criminal activities that occur in other districts. In USA Today’s investigation, journalists uncovered several examples of teachers who were disciplined or lost their credentials in one state and then were hired in a school district in another state.
K-12 schools have an obligation to keep students safe. Fingerprinting is still an essential part of the vetting process. But rather than rely solely on this method, school districts may want to consider supplementing with other types of checks. A third-party background check company can help conduct a thorough review of the applicant’s criminal history, references, educational credentials and more. In doing so, they’ll mitigate risk and ensure a better quality of teacher in the classroom.
Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain his audience. HireRight is the industry’s premier provider of employment screening services.