Bills aim to tighten educator background checks

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2008 - 7:51 PM

Two bills heading for the Legislature would flag teacher licensing records for past discipline and require criminal history checks on all school coaches.

A Minnesota legislator has introduced two bills to tighten up checks on teachers and coaches whose past misconduct with students might otherwise go unnoticed.

Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said the purpose of one of her bills is to make sure school districts hiring teachers will know about disciplinary action against candidates that might fall short of criminal complaints. The legislation would require that teacher licensing records be flagged with asterisks for disciplinary actions such as revoking or suspending teachers' licenses. Districts would then be required to contact the state Board of Teaching to find out more details about what happened.

Currently, such information is public and available to districts but isn't marked on the licensing records, said Board of Teaching Executive Director Karen Balmer. Districts are now required to do only criminal background checks on prospective teachers.

"The goal is to have a consistent policy that each school district would use to ensure the safety and security of students, and, hopefully, eliminate some people that have fallen through the cracks," Bigham said.

The second of Bigham's bills would require criminal background checks for all school coaches. Currently, such checks are required only for head coaches and assistant coaches who are licensed school employees.

The proposed legislation was prompted by several recent incidents involving teachers and students, Bigham said.

Last fall, a former St. Paul schools band teacher was sentenced to three months in jail for having a sexual relationship with a former student. In December, a Forest Lake schools community education instructor and Robbinsdale schools assistant hockey coach were charged with having sex with students.

"The stories [about teacher misconduct] have put a light on the situation," she said. "I feel this bill is a way to remedy that. ..."

Bigham's teacher bill would also mandate that districts require prospective teachers to report any disciplinary actions taken against them in Minnesota or any other state.

Representatives of various education organizations said they will have to take a closer look at the legislation before they are ready to sign on. Balmer said the Board of Teaching is studying the proposal and would like to see the language clarified about what kind of disciplinary measures would be flagged by asterisks on teachers' licensing records.

Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, wondered whether volunteer coaches would be covered by the criminal checks bill. He also has concerns about whether a relatively minor offense would mark a teacher for the rest of his or her career.

"If you are 25 years old and you cuff a kid, and now you're 50 and looking to move from Wilmar to Edina, how much of a penalty do you have to pay now?" he said. "If it's a serious transgression, absolutely the district should know. If it's a lesser transgression, how long should that asterisk stay with somebody's name? Should it be there your whole career?"

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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