State fingerprint checks of 1,648 recently hired Los Angeles Unified School District employees have turned up 50 employees with criminal backgrounds ranging from forgery to child cruelty, The Times learned Wednesday.
While none of the workers had a violent history, school administrators chalk that up to pure luck. They contend that they are more vulnerable to employees with hidden backgrounds because of an April 11 ruling by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren that prevents them from running quick checks on applicants through a state computer system.
The new batch of fingerprint checks was expedited by the district because of last month’s slaying of a student at Rio Linda High School near Sacramento. The suspect is a school custodian whose previous felony conviction was unknown to school officials.
State legislators have responded to the tragedy with proposals to expand school districts’ rights to check employee histories.
“The state is beginning to understand that they can’t just set up roadblocks and not create an alternative to do what needs to be done to protect the safety of kids,” said L.A. Unified Supt. Sid Thompson. “It’s so pathetic that it takes a death of a young lady.”
Lungren’s spokesman, Rob Stutzman, said that in banning the quick background checks, Lungren was simply upholding appellate court cases that protected the confidentiality of job applicants.
“If L.A. Unified’s hands are tied, they’re tied by the law of California,” he said.
In reality, the district will dismiss just 10 of the 50 employees--two of them teachers--whose criminal records were unearthed this week by the more laborious state fingerprint review process. Of the 40 workers retained, all had disclosed their criminal histories, officials said.
Decisions on eight teachers’ aides are pending further information from the state.
Although the district and other school districts follow strict rules against employing anyone convicted of a violent crime, they allow themselves some flexibility with other offenses, particularly when committed by nonteachers.
“I’ve had mixed feelings over the years, but we can always argue that we gave someone a chance after they paid their debt,” Thompson said.
In the current spate of district fingerprint results, for instance, among those being retained are teachers who were convicted of welfare fraud and possession of a loaded firearm in a public place before the district hired them. The most serious examples among nonteachers include willful cruelty to a child and assault with attempt to commit murder--both older convictions that were legally expunged from the employees’ records after probation.
Pending state legislation seeks to overturn those liberal rules by subjecting nonteaching employees to the higher standards applied to teachers. Some school board members welcome the push.
“I don’t want to err on the side of giving someone another chance and then having to explain to the parents when something has happened, ‘Well, yes, we knew about that background, but he seemed like a nice guy,’ ” said school board member Mark Slavkin.
What is tolerated varies from district to district. Termination is virtually automatic when the employee has concealed a crime, officials said, but they face a tougher decision when the crime is disclosed in the job application.
“I guess it’s just my own sense of right and wrong and knowledge of human nature,” said Marietta Palmer, assistant superintendent for human resources in the Pasadena Unified School District.
For example, according to L.A. district policies for hiring nonteaching employees, a prostitution arrest that is at least three years old could be forgiven, said Walt Greene, director of employee services. So might a decade-old conviction for involuntary manslaughter.
Of 14,000 applicants last year, 628--about 4%--had previous convictions, and about half of them were hired anyway, Greene said.
State law now prohibits districts from hiring anyone who was convicted of a sex- or drug-related offense.
Prompted by the Rio Linda killing, Assemblywoman Barbara Alby (R-Fair Oaks) introduced a bill that would increase the restrictions for other employees up to the teacher standard, which includes any crimes involving children. The bill would also create a statewide computer system yielding fingerprint checks in three days.
A companion bill by Assemblywoman Deborah Ortiz (R-Sacramento) would prohibit school districts from putting new employees on the job before their fingerprint checks are complete.
Until mid-April, L.A. Unified and nine other districts had used the state’s system--known as the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System--to screen nonteaching applicants by name and birthdate before they were hired. Names of teacher applicants had never been run through that system because of union opposition on confidentiality grounds.
When Lungren told school districts to stop using the screening system, the L.A. district was left with the slower fingerprinting through the state Department of Justice, which has always been done as a backup check .
Days after the slaying of the Rio Linda student, Michelle Montoya, Thompson halted the hiring anyone before fingerprint results were obtained. But the 50 employees with records identified in the recent fingerprint check had already been hired.
Los Angeles Unified’s system was stricter than most. Officials in several Los Angeles County school districts said it has always been their practice to put new employees to work while awaiting results of the Department of Justice fingerprint checks, which they said could take up to 12 weeks. Lungren spokesman Stutzman said that waiting period has been pared to about a month in most cases even though the caseload has grown from 13,000 to about 15,000 requests per week since the Rio Linda killing.
Chilled by the slaying, some districts are reevaluating their procedures.
The Long Beach Unified School District has begun paying a $10 surcharge on the fingerprint check fee to ensure results within 17 days, said spokesman Dick Van Der Laan. Los Angeles Unified has paid for that expediting as well.