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Alabama improves its vigilance
State makes strides in checking teacher backgrounds, but has more to go

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — When Alabama began fingerprinting and doing background checks on teachers and support staff in 2002, administrators noticed a pattern.

A longtime educator would miss several appointments for fingerprinting, then suddenly retire. Others resigned before the state got a chance to look into their past.

State Superintendent Joe Morton said it became clear that the new law was working, weeding out those whose past posed a problem and moving Alabama “light years” ahead in improving safety controls for schoolchildren.

Propelled by a high-profile Mobile case, the new law set in motion a process that allowed background checks to be completed on all current and new staff in 2004.

But the state education department has been reluctant to provide the public with full details and slow to release records of teachers cited for wrongdoing, including sexual misconduct.

An Associated Press review of State Department of Education records found that more than 50 teachers have had their teaching certificates revoked, denied or suspended for sexual misconduct — including acts with students and other minors — during 2001-2005. But getting complete information on those teachers from the state department required repeated requests over a period of months.

The department keeps a list of problem teachers dating back to the 1970s on its Web site, which parents can check. But the site does not include the school districts where the teachers taught or the reasons why their certificates were suspended, revoked or denied.

Of the District of Columbia and 50 states surveyed in the AP’s seven-month investigation, Alabama was the last one to release the reasons for the negative action against the teachers’ certificates. Morton and Larry Craven, legal counsel for the department, said the delay was due to a recent FBI audit to see how the state was handling information obtained from the agency.

FBI partnership

The FBI partnership allows Alabama to do nationwide background checks using the bureau’s records, but it requires the state to meet privacy agreements that limit the amount of personal information that can be made public, they said.

“We were trying to walk that fine line of catch everybody but not violate the rules and regulations of the FBI,” Morton said.

He said Alabama was the first state checked and he predicted that other states will also be reviewing what they make public once audited by the FBI. “The alphabet will get you sometimes,” he said. “The W’s will get it too — it’s just a matter of time.”

The Alabama school system’s online database of problem teachers is updated quarterly, but there were at least two checked by the AP whose certificates were listed as “suspended until whereabouts become known,” even though they’re listed on the National Sex Offender Registry along with their current addresses.

Craven said his office is researching those cases to determine whether revocation proceedings can begin.

Mobile case

Alabama’s system of checking teachers’ backgrounds was overhauled following a Mobile County case where an assistant principal’s criminal past was not discovered until more than a decade after he was hired under a false name.

Samuel Leavis was arrested in June 2001 on charges of failing to register as a sex offender when he moved to Mobile in 1990 and began working in local private and public schools. He had prior sex offenses involving children in Florida and Massachusetts, but using falsified papers, he got into the system at a time when background checks were not conducted.

Leavis, who had worked his way up to an assistant principal position at Phillips Preparatory School in Mobile, pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in December 2001 and received a three-year prison sentence.

Five months later, the state Legislature passed a law requiring background checks for all teachers and other education employees who have direct contact with schoolchildren. It cost the state about $4 million to do checks on current teachers, and new applicants pay $49 to cover the cost.

“I think what we have is a pretty effective law that we’re still doing our best every day to implement,” Morton said in a recent interview. “That was a massive undertaking — we went back and printed every existing employee and now update and continue to print all new applicants, so I think we’ve come light years in five years.”

Craven, the department’s legal counsel, said “a little less than 3 percent” of the 40,000 certified teachers who were fingerprinted had criminal records lurking in their backgrounds.

“Of that 3 percent who had any kind of criminal record, there was only a percentage of that that had records of criminal convictions serious enough to take action against their certificate,” Craven said. He called that a “relatively small number.”

Morton said the background checks have let Alabama yank away the welcome mat from people looking to conceal their criminal pasts by working in a state that didn’t fingerprint.

“People would call our teacher certification department and ask one question: ‘Do you do background checks?’ Well, before this law allowed us to, we’d hem and haw, but generally say no,” Morton said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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