Background checks grabbed national headlines this week, as Wall Street Journal columnist Campbell Brown revealed numerou...
All employers are responsible for ensuring the safest work environment for their employees. Workers deserve to walk into any work environment, from manufacturing factories to corporate offices, knowing their employer has taken steps to protect them from potential risks and threats. Schools and school districts have this same responsibility to provide a safe work environment for their employees. Still, they also have the added obligation of providing a secure, nurturing learning environment for their students.
Teacher background checks are a core of this equation and a crucial step that schools take to ensure that they are doing their due diligence and living up to their responsibilities. Indeed, most in the education sector would acknowledge the importance of background checks as part of the hiring process for schools, universities, and other educational institutions. However, that’s not to say that every school takes the same approach when conducting employee background checks.
Below, we will delve into why background checks are so important for not just teachers but all other employees working in education. We will also look at the specific types of background checks that schools typically conduct on their employees to ensure a safe environment for students, other staff, visitors, and more. Finally, we’ll examine how education background checks sometimes intersect with the screening protocols for other sectors – such as youth sports.
One of the first important details to note about education-related background checks is that only some school background checks are teacher background checks. While teachers are at the center of the educational experience for students and parents alike, they are but one employee category for a school district. Other categories include administrators (superintendents, principals, and vice principals), custodial staff, kitchen or cafeteria workers, librarians, information technology professionals, bus drivers, coaches for school sports teams, and more.
Contrary to popular belief, not all education employees undergo the same background check. On the contrary, school employee background checks to vet different workers vary by position. For instance, for a bus driver, a driving history check is a central part of the background check process. Most other education-related jobs won’t require a driving history check simply because those jobs rarely involve operating a vehicle.
Teacher background checks tend to be among the most in-depth of all employee background checks in the educational sphere. That’s because teachers are entrusted with educating and watching over kids and teenagers. A teacher encounters such occasions regularly when a custodian or a cafeteria worker would rarely have an occasion to be alone with a student.
As a result, the potential for abuse or misconduct in teaching jobs is high. For instance, statistics from Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME) show that approximately 7% of students in the 8th through 11th grade age range report having had sexual contact of some variety with an adult. That percentage equates to about 3.5 million students nationally. And while that statistic includes sexual contact with any adult – including categories like parents, other family members, or neighbors – SESAME reports that instances involving teachers or coaches are the most common.
Schools and school districts are well aware of the potential for educator sexual misconduct and are eager to avoid those risks. As such, teacher background checks are among the more thorough pre-hire background checks of any occupation or industry. First, teachers must undergo a background check to become licensed to teach – what those checks entail can vary slightly between states. Second, schools and school districts (as well as universities, trade schools, or other educational institutions) run their own background checks to make sure they avoid hiring a dangerous person.
Which background checks are done for teachers? Background checks for teachers will usually include some or all of the following:
Other checks may also be a part of the process for teacher screenings. Drug testing is not uncommon, as schools are usually strict drug-free workplaces. Some schools may also request ongoing criminal monitoring for their teachers to be notified if an existing employee is arrested, charged, or convicted of a crime. While some school districts (and even some states) have policies for their schools, those rules work on an honor system basis. Ongoing monitoring can provide a more reliable means for schools to spot newer criminal activity among their employees. At backgroundchecks.com, we proudly offer our clients an affordable ongoing criminal monitoring service.
In an educational context, the word “faculty” refers primarily to the academic arm of a school, college, university, or other institution. This term tends to be utilized more in higher education than K-12 education, and we follow that context trend here. So, what types of background checks are the norm for college faculty – such as professors, instructors, or lecturers?
The norms around college faculty background checks tend to be more relaxed than standard for K-12 teachers. Part of this is that college or university professors don’t have the same professional standards or expectations as primary, elementary, or secondary school teachers. Where K-12 educators almost always need to be licensed teachers who earned their degrees in teaching or education, professors in college or university environments don’t usually need to have teaching certificates. Instead, colleges and universities look for people with expertise in specific fields or academic areas. Many college professors have master’s or doctorate degrees in their field of study, and many are hired by colleges in research capacities or for other non-teaching work. Even though these individuals have professorial duties, those responsibilities are not the entirety of their roles or main focus areas. As a result, post-secondary institutions will almost always care more about credentials and experience in a specific academic area than a general teaching degree or experience.
As you might expect, these different expectations affect the types of background checks colleges, and universities run on their faculty. For instance, professional license verifications – a common part of the equation for K-12 teacher background checks – are less common at the higher education level. While some colleges or universities prefer their educators to have some certification or credential in a specific occupation or academic area, those requirements can usually be verified through checks of a candidate’s educational background and past employment.
One of the points of reasoning for the difference between K-12 teacher background checks and college professor background checks is that college students are, for the most part, adults. There is less regulation about how educators interact with older students than when the students are young children. That’s not to say colleges and universities don’t have standards and codes of conduct for their faculty, nor is it to suggest that background checks for college faculty are unnecessary. Most higher education institutions will consider many of the same aspects that K-12 school districts do – including criminal history. Colleges and universities will also watch for inappropriate behavior from faculty, such as college professors who are romantically or sexually involved with their students. Overall, the rules, regulations, and background check requirements for higher education faculty are usually slightly looser for college educators than for K-12 teachers.
In addition to faculty checks, some colleges and universities also conduct background checks on incoming students. One statistic indicates that roughly two-thirds of all colleges across the country now perform criminal background checks on at least some of their student applicants. Higher education institutions will also consider transcripts to ensure students have the proper grades and coursework to meet admissions standards (or, in the case of transfer students, to assess which credits should transfer). Background checks for incoming students are becoming more common in higher education to keep college campuses safer for all.
Another essential group to remember in education is the administrative staff. While teachers and professors work with students in the classroom or lecture hall, administrators are responsible for running schools, districts, colleges, universities, or other educational institutions and entities. This group primarily comprises principals and vice principals. Still, it can also include superintendents and deputy, associate, or assistant superintendents and their executive teams (often including executive director roles for capacities such as communications, special education, school improvement, and more). At a higher education level, administrative roles usually include the president or chancellor of the institution and jobs such as dean or provost.
Administrators often have significantly less contact with students than teachers or professors, though principals and vice principals tend to be exceptions to that rule. Meanwhile, these jobs often come with high levels of responsibility that directly impact a school or district’s ability to operate effectively.
As a result, most educational administrators face background checks that are just as thorough as teachers, if not more so. While less contact with students may mean less risk of abuse or misconduct involving students, administrators are responsible for operations, curriculum, finances, labor relations, legal services, and more. Failures or abuses of power within these roles can be extremely costly for an educational institution. Schools understand this risk and use background checks to ensure their administrators are safe, experienced, qualified, and capable. Criminal background checks, education and employment history checks, professional license verifications, reference checks, and credit history checks may all be part of the administrative vetting process.
Also falling into the administrative category of schools are school boards and committees. While background checks haven’t always been required for these groups, more schools and districts now require that they pass background checks.
School volunteers are the most overlooked group when it comes to background checks in education. Volunteers serve many roles in K-12 education, from classroom aides to tutors to chaperones for school field trips. Some volunteer roles are one-offs, such as when a parent volunteers to come along for a field trip. While many other volunteer roles are longer-term, the variation of engagement lengths is one reason that school volunteer background check policies aren’t always as well-established as the vetting policies for teachers or administrators.
Still, the fact is that school volunteers often work with kids as closely as teachers do and more closely than most administrators. As such, every school or school district must have smart and well-document protocols for vetting volunteers. Criminal background checks, sex offender registry searches, and child abuse or neglect background checks are crucial for all school volunteer roles.
Other background checks may depend on the capacity in which a volunteer will be serving. For example, volunteers who tutor kids or come into the classroom to help students with their schoolwork are often retired teachers themselves. Schools may decide to vet these individuals to make sure they are qualified to assist in this capacity. Meanwhile, parents volunteering to drive for a field trip should at least be asked to present a copy of their driver’s license so that the school can ensure it is valid and in good standing.
Volunteers play key roles in schools by sharing some of the burdens teachers carry. Unfortunately, the trade-off is that volunteers are put into a position where they could take advantage of vulnerable children if they wanted to. While schools often implement policies that prevent volunteers from being alone with students without teacher supervision, those policies are ultimately imperfect. Schools can keep their students safer by incorporating background checks for all volunteers.
Sports are a vital component of the school experience for students of all ages. When executed correctly, school sports can help keep students invested and engaged while offering significant opportunities to play their strengths and find excellence outside the classroom. However, just as schools need to vet teachers thoroughly to make sure they are safe, trustworthy, and qualified, they should always do the same for coaches, assistant coaches, and other school sports employees or volunteers.
Coaches tend to have a very different relationship with their athletes than teachers do with students. Specifically, the coach-athlete relationship is often much less formal than the teacher-student relationship. Because sports take place outside school hours and involve physical activity rather than academics, and there is such a profoundly emotional aspect to athletics for many young people, athletes and coaches often have a bond closer to a friendship than the typical teacher-student relationship. However, while this kind of bond can create potentially life-changing mentorship opportunities, it can also be twisted and manipulated by coaches who choose to cross the line.
Verbal or physical abuse, sexual abuse, drug or steroid use, and inappropriate relationships are all problems that can arise when a coach doesn’t respect the boundaries that should exist between them and a young athlete. Background checks for school sports employees are the best strategy at a school’s disposal for minimizing those risks. Again, criminal background checks and searches that look for a history of sex crimes or child abuse are at the core of youth sports checks, but employment history checks and reference checks are also necessary. If a coach left a previous job or was dismissed over concerns about their relationships with athletes, a red flag might not always manifest as a criminal conviction but can sometimes be uncovered by talking with people who knew the coach before.
While much of the discussion around youth sports background checks focus on the K-12 age range, massive scandals involving Larry Nassar (at Michigan State University) and Jerry Sandusky (at Penn State University) have shown that thorough background investigations and improved oversight of athletic programs are needed at the higher education level as well.
The background check process in school districts doesn’t just involve teachers, coaches, and administrators. On the contrary, so many different groups of employees play important roles in keeping schools operating, and all of those employee groups interact with students on some level. To make sure that students are safe at all times, it is paramount that schools have background check policies and plans in place for each of these employee groups.
Let’s start with bus drivers, who play an important role in making sure students get to school to learn. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 360,000 school bus drivers are in the United States. Those drivers, collectively, are responsible for getting millions of children to school every year. For many students, the only option for getting to school is riding the bus, and bus drivers make it possible.
Because bus drivers are often the only adult on the bus with students (some districts have bus monitors), criminal history checks, sex offender registry checks, and child abuse or neglect checks are smart inclusions for any bus driver background check. Schools should also verify driver licenses for each bus driver to ensure they have the proper license to perform that work, that it is in good standing, and that they don’t employ a bus driver with a history of reckless or dangerous driving.
Other school employees may only have limited contact with students – and even more limited chances of ever being alone with a student – but that doesn’t mean those groups don’t require vetting. Custodians, maintenance staff, grounds workers, and cafeteria workers, for instance, should all at least pass a criminal background check and a sex offender search before being allowed to work in a school.
The answer depends on the job in question. Still, most schools use a combination of criminal background checks, registry checks that look for a sex offender or child abuse history, verifications of education and professional licenses, employment history and reference checks, and drug tests. Other jobs may require role-specific background checks, such as driving history checks for bus drivers or credit history checks for administrators in key financial roles.
The average parent will never have to undergo a school background check. The exception is parents who volunteer for a school or district as tutors, chaperones for events or field trips, youth sports coaches, or classroom aides. These parents will typically have to go through at least a criminal background check before they are allowed to work with kids.
Volunteers often have close contact with students and sometimes work with students in employee-like capacities (such as volunteering or coaching). These interactions create opportunities for school volunteers to exploit, abuse, or harm students. Just as schools use background checks to minimize the risk of teachers crossing lines with their pupils, districts will also require background checks for volunteers.
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