Slipping through the cracks: Background checks for teachers

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by KREM.com

KREM.com

Posted on February 14, 2014 at 12:52 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 25 at 10:42 AM

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash.— Students said a Trent Elementary substitute teacher hit and threatened them recently.  He passed a background check even though he has a criminal history according to school district leaders. So, 2 On Your Side’s Whitney Ward stepped in to see if this could happen to your kids and found startling information.

WATCH: Investigators recommend additional charges Trent Elem. substitute

The East Valley School District Superintendent told KREM 2 News that the teacher, Matthew Deryan, slipped through the cracks in the background check.

Any fulltime teacher or substitute goes through a background check to even get hired. KREM 2 News found there are a few glaring holes in the process of the background check that could put your kids at risk.

It came as a shock to just about everyone the day that Deryan was accused of hitting, scratching and threatening students at Trent Elementary School. Kids also said the substitute locked them in their classroom and smelled like alcohol.

East Valley Assistant Superintendent Tom Gresch began asking almost immediately how Deryan ever passed a background check to be allowed around children.


WATCH: Trent Elem. substitute’s criminal record slipped through the cracks

Deryan had a restraining order against him in Spokane for domestic violence, as well as a conviction for making a false statement to police according to court documents. Court records also showed that Deryan was arrested for DUI just months before the incident at Trent.

Deryan first applied for his teaching certificate in 1996, and passed a background check through the FBI and Washington State Patrol (WSP) with no red flags on criminal history. He renewed three times until getting a lifetime certification in June of 2011.

If there was any conviction information from other states at the time he was fingerprinted, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) would have been aware of it. But subsequent arrest information is not tracked. KREM 2 News learned only violations of a restraining order every show up on a check. One you pass a background check, you are not required to be checked again.  However, if a teacher transfers to a different school district, and it has been more than two years since their last background check, they are required to be fingerprinted and go through the process again.

“If they have a serious crime, and there's been a conviction, then we do hear from law enforcement,” said Gresch.

KREM 2 News obtained a copy of the background form used to check East Valley teachers. The form clearly asks about crimes against children, including rape and incest. What the form leaves out is anything about DUI or restraining orders.

The rules are applied differently for substitutes like Deryan versus full time teachers.

“I think it's different because substitute teachers don't always have a specific employer. Many go from district to district,” said Gresch.

Once fingerprinted and hired, if a substitute teaches in multiple districts, but only lists one as their primary district of employment, Gresch says schools may never know of a substitute’s crime.

A KREM 2 News asked the East Valley Assistant Superintendent if there could be others working in the district who have violations that he and others do not know about.

“There could be anywhere, in our state, in our nation. Yes,” Assistant Superintendent Gresch replied.
    
Gresch said he would like to see annual checks on all employees around children whether they are full time teachers or substitutes.

An annual check would come at a cost. Job applicants pay $68 for their own background check through the Washington State Patrol.

Results from the background check through WSP include any prior convictions or pending arrests in the last year. The check is then sent on to the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for final approval.

Once hired, the cost of a re-check would become the district’s responsibility for both substitutes and full time teachers. A re-check could only be passed onto teachers as part of contract negotiations, according to the East Valley School District.

“If you work in the same district, there is no law that says you have to be fingerprinted every 2 years. So, it's just whether districts are willing to pay for that, or make that requirement,” a KREM 2 reporter asked Catherine Slagle, the Director of Professional Practices at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Exactly. And it is quite expensive,” Slagle replied.

With 70 substitutes on East Valley’s active list, plus another 480 teachers, para-educators and other professionals, an annual background check for each one would cost the district at least another $36,000 a year. It is something other districts are not doing. East Valley said they were considering it.

“I believe we could go above and beyond, go past that, and set a higher standard. But the standard already is pretty high. And then it's a matter of, can you afford to do that for each and every employee coming in?” said Gresch.

Gresch also said the change would only be effective if others followed suit.
   
“Just because I happen to live in a certain area, and my child goes to school, doesn't mean there should be a higher or lower standard anywhere else. So, I think it's going to have to happen together with all of our districts,” said Gresch.

WSP said it is working on a proposal for state lawmakers in 2015 to use what is called “Rap Back”. It would be a type of ongoing background check.

“If OSPI wanted to keep track of all their school district employees, we would need their fingerprints, we would retain it. And then, if they were subsequently arrested, OSPI would be notified,” said Criminal and Identification Section Manager Deb Collinsworth with WSP.

The FBI would offer it, but it would still be up individual states to require it.

“We’re in the business to educate kids. But at the same time, we're in the business to educate kids and make sure they're in a safe environment,” said Gresch.

Gresch said he hopes the case in the East Valley School District will inspire the state and beyond to not just look at the price of more background checks, but the real cost of going without them.

Deryan faces up to 29 charges of assault and unlawful imprisonment. He is scheduled for trial in late April.

The East Valley School District leaders said Deryan will never teach in their district again.

As of February 2014, Deryan was still certified by the state. OSPI said he is the subject of an active investigation. Any future disciplinary action could include pulling his teacher certification.

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