Background checks reflect troubled times

Feb 21, 2014 By Chris Peck

Unfortunately, we never can know enough, or test for enough things, to eliminate risk or bad situations down the road.

Something about the Fremont County School District's decision to order criminal background checks on every new hire seems sad.

Is this what we've come to?

Suspecting that adults looking for a job with the schools may be criminals?

OK, I know the answer.

Better safe than sorry when it comes to pedophiles, criminal histories, and drug dealings.

I can imagine the worries being articulated in the minds of school administrators and legislators who are behind the laws and policies demanding criminal background checks:

- If we don't check people then schools will be liable if something happens.

- Parents expect this.

- Our job is to protect kids against a cruel, dangerous world.

"The safety of our kids and staff is a high priority,'' said District 25 superintendent Terry Snyder in explaining the policy to The Ranger a few days ago.

Of course it is.

But isn't there a tragic side of this as well?

How did we get to be a society today that assumes truly bad people apparently are trying to sneak into teaching and do harm?

This seems like risk management run amok. Fear of lawsuits gone wild.

Yes, some bad people, damaged people, live in this world. They need help. They need to be separated out from mainstream society.

But shouldn't we anchor that work into social services, law enforcement and the courts? These institutions have the criminal histories, the background research and the perspective on the human psyche to do the job of separating out the bad apples from the rest of society.

Background checks by schools have limits. Severe limits.

We're still seeing headlines and sordid TV news accounts about those few teachers who end up sleeping with their students, or bullying them on the athletic field.

How do you test for consensual lust or an overly developed competitive drive?

You don't.

And then there is the whole question of drugs and alcohol.

Do we or don't we care whether a teacher has, or hasn't smoked pot, been drunk before age 21, or taken notes from somebody else's homework?

Whatever the answer, I'd submit we're often trying to hold teachers to some phony standard of behavior that many students -- and their parents --already have blown right past.

These seem like glaring shortcomings in the rush to do criminal background checks on all prospective school hires.

We just can't know enough, or test for enough things, to eliminate risk or bad situations down the road.

Of course this won't change the laws and policies on criminal background checks.

But think of this. Criminal background checks appear to have almost no relationship to determining whether a teacher will be good or bad in the classroom.

Thinking back on 12 years in Riverton public schools, a handful of teachers stood out as outstanding educators. Some were hard as nails, other were kind as kittens. All the best teachers took time to know their class and their students. All demanded did the work and tested them to be sure they knew the work.

When I think back to the teachers who may well have done damage to kids, it wasn't because they were criminals.

It was because they didn't have the will or the skill to teach.

Will and skill.

Let's make that the true test of who should work in a school --and who shouldn't.

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