Background checks may be reality

I have worked for six years to pass legislation requiring that all school employees who have unsupervised access to children undergo criminal history background checks.

It has been unthinkable to me that we would entrust our children to someone for seven hours out of every day, for nine months out of every year, for twelve years without the knowledge that they have never been convicted of a crime that would endanger the lives of our children.

Last week Alabama moved one step closer to accomplishing one of my primary goals since coming to the Alabama Senate in 1995 – require background checks on anyone in the public school system who has unsupervised access to our children.

The Alabama Senate, last Thursday, unanimously passed legislation that I have sponsored year after year, that would mandate criminal background checks on employees in our schools.

The legislation now goes to the Alabama House for consideration. They should not delay in passing this legislation and sending it to the governor for his signature.

The legislature took the first step in passing this legislation in 1999 when we passed the Child Protection Act which required background checks on all incoming teachers. These checks were expanded to include a comparison between ABI records and the national database of arrests maintained by the FBI.

This enables schools systems to check the background of would-be teachers coming from other states.

Unfortunately, the state got only a half a loaf in 1999 because the teacher lobby gutted the bill before being passed and removed the provision that would require background checks for the existing 70,000 plus public school employees including teachers, administrators and support workers such as bus drivers.

Nearly three years later, the results of the background checks on those wanting to enter the public school system have been alarming. Dozens of teachers have been rejected because of their conviction of various crimes that would put our children at risk.

However, it was not until it was learned that an assistant principal in the Mobile County public school system was a convicted sex offender that the teacher lobby began to enter into serious discussions about finally addressing this issue.

This newly passed bill will allow the school system to obtain the finger prints of the school employees by using digital machines that would be set up at central locations within a school system as opposed to having the employees report to a law enforcement office to be fingerprinted.

There will be no cost to individual employees for these checks. Money from the Children First Foundation, which uses money from the state’s share of the tobacco settlement to provide child welfare, will be used to cover the cost of conducting these background checks.

The total cost of implementing this legislation will be approximately $5 million.

The fingerprint machines will cost about $1 million and it will cost another $4 million to actually complete the checks with the ABI and FBI.

Under the current law, new employees pay a $49 fee for their background checks.

Hopefully, we can now finally put our children above petty concerns that this kind of legislation somehow inconveniences the education bureaucracy.

What on earth could be more important than protecting our children from sexual predators who would use their positions in education to abuse children?

If this legislation becomes law, families can rest a little easier knowing that the state is doing everything possible to provide a save environment for their children while at school. It simply never made any sense to me that we would not require the men and women who spend most of each school day with our children to have a thorough background check.

I urge my colleagues in the House to pass this legislation and let’s close the chapter on this kind of abuse before another child falls prey to such behavior.

Anything less would constitute a monumental failure on our part to protect our most precious resources: the children of Alabama.

Sen. Bill Armistead is the Republican Leader in the Alabama Senate and represents District 14 including Shelby, Chilton & Bibb Counties. Sen. Armistead’s e-mail address is mailto:senator@armistead.org

and his web site is http://www.armistead.org.

His weekly editorials are posted on his web site and can also be received via email weekly if requested