AS AN EDUCATOR, ADMINISTRATOR OR EMPLOYEE OF A SCHOOL DISTRICT, YOU MORE THAN LIKELY WERE SUBJECT TO A BACKGROUND CHECK. IT MAY HAVE BEEN A FINGERPRINT OR NAME-BASED CHECK. BUT IT’S IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT NOT ALL BACKGROUND CHECKS ARE THE SAME. DUE TO DIFFERENT REGULATIONS, POLICIES OR BUDGET CONCERNS, YOUR SCHOOL DISTRICT MAY NOT BE PERFORMING THE MOST RELIABLE SCREEN. WHY DOES THIS MATTER TO YOU? YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SAFETY OF STUDENTS AND OTHERS.
The majority of this data is publically available; however, the way in which records are searched equates to differences in quality and completeness.
Challenges Related to Data
Criminal data in the U.S. is not consistent and highly complex. There are 3,144 counties in the U.S., each with its own court system or systems. What creates the biggest challenge in searching these thousands of sources is there is no standardization across the country relating to criminal records.
For example, there is no uniformity in the personal identifiers provided within records. One jurisdiction may include full name, date of birth (DOB) and address. Other jurisdictions may only include full name and age. All these data variations make it difficult to identify every record that may belong to one individual.
Unique identifiers such as Social Security (SSN) numbers are rarely provided within court records. This is a huge misconception to those outside the industry. There’s no central database that pulls up a person’s complete criminal history just by typing in a SSN. That’s certainly how it’s portrayed on CSI. But that’s TV, not reality.
Another major challenge is names. Because everyone has just one name, right? Of course not, it’s estimated that about 40 percent of the country’s population has at least one AKA — also known as name or alias. People may commit crimes under various names.
Taking into account all these variables, background checks are an imperfect science. With so many sources and opportunities for errors, what method is best?
Fingerprinting: The Real Story
Fingerprint background checks are the leading methodology mandated for school districts across the country and also one of the most unreliable screens available. Even though fingerprinting is linked to the FBI, it’s not the gold standard. Unfortunately, many policymakers and stakeholders believe it to be and mandate the use of fingerprinting. Why does fingerprinting fall short? First, the database used to screen employees via fingerprint is not the same one that law enforcement access. It was actually created as an arrest index, which is exactly what it is. Over 50 percent of the arrests in the FBI database do not have a disposition, meaning there is no information on the outcome. Also, it only returns the information it has, which is typically limited to arrests involving a fingerprint. Not every arrest in the U.S. results in a fingerprint. Thus, those won’t be found in this kind of search.
The FBI is only a receiver of data. It does not gather. It must depend on each state to send it arrest and disposition information. Each state must depend on the jurisdictions within it to send records. This results in missing and incomplete data, allowing some applicants to be screened “clear” via fingerprinting who actually have criminal records or for others to be denied employment because of an arrest that was actually dismissed.
The FBI itself even publicly declared that its database should not be a sole source, stating in a 2006 U.S. Justice Report, “Users may not want to rely exclusively on an FBI and state repository check and may also want to check other record sources, such as commercial databases and local court house to obtain more complete and up-to-date information in support of criminal background screening.”
Finally, applicants should be concerned about fingerprinting because it offers zero consumer protection. If something is incorrect on an FBI background check, consumers have little or no recourse to get it fixed. A recent report by an advocacy group estimated that 600,000 of the 17 million employment background checks conducted by the FBI had mistakes. By comparison, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) that provides consumers extensive protection, rights and the ability to dispute findings, heavily regulates searches conducted by screening firms.
The Database Conundrum
So if fingerprinting isn’t the gold standard, are commercial databases? Commercial databases do contain over 10 times the data of the FBI’s — 40 million vs. 450 million records — so yes they are better than fingerprinting in many ways, but there is no database, held by any entity, that is a true representation of every criminal offense in the country. A commercial database covers about 50 percent of the courts in the U.S. Think of it as a wireless coverage map. Some areas have great data; others do not.
Databases are a powerful supplementary tool but are oversold as a catchall product. They are highly profitable for vendors; however, often risky for employers.
What is a Reliable Screen?
The first step of a reliable screen is to conduct an Address History Trace (AHT), which is a report that provides an applicant’s residential history as well as AKAs. This jurisdictional profile leads a researcher to search those counties of prior or current residence. Do people offend where they live? Since most people spend the majority of their time where they live, it’s reasonable to assume the answer is yes. A screening firm, examining 2,000 records, compared the county of offense to the AHT results and conducted an internal study. This study revealed 70 percent of the records were found in a county discovered through the AHT.
Running an AHT to determine the jurisdictional profile then searching those counties identified are the first two steps of a reliable screen. But people don’t always commit crimes where they live. To dig deeper, expand the search with a commercial database. But it’s important to verify anything found in a database at the court of record to ensure it’s the most accurate and up-to-date. Searching Sex Offender registries is a final critical step to a reliable screen. For maximum protection, districts should search all real-time registries available, not just your home state.
Why it Matters and What You Can Do
Now that you know that not all background checks are the same, ask yourself why it matters. It matters because bad background checks can lead to individuals accessing your schools as an employee or a volunteer. Not all offenders should be blacklisted; however, certain past crimes should preclude an individual from access to kids. What happens when that person commits a new crime; one that could have been prevented?
How can you be a voice for one less victim? Consider screening as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Stop simply checking the box, and think about how you can enhance your screening, which in turns enhances the safety of your schools. Talk to your board, legislators and policymakers about the gaps and deficiencies in mandated types of screening like fingerprinting.
If budget is the issue, then there are alternatives like self-pay for volunteers — you ask parents to pay for so many other less important things. Bottom line thinking about safety issues can result in tragedy. After something happens is not the time to make changes. By then it’s too late. Asking yourself and those that make the policies critical questions about screening is the first real step to being a voice for change. Heroes aren’t always the ones arriving after the disaster. Sometimes heroes are the ones preventing them from happening. Be a hero today; stand up for better screening in your school.