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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to speed up criminal background checks on new employees, Los Angeles school officials have begun using optical fingerprint scanners to search for prior convictions and to cut delays in getting job applicants onto campuses.

The 13 refrigerator-size devices, operating at sites across the Los Angeles Unified School District, instantly transmit digitized fingerprints over phone lines to the state Department of Justice. Replies arrive by computer within 72 hours--compared with the monthlong wait when the district mails the same prints to Sacramento.

“We can get classroom teachers through the system in a smaller amount of time,” said Walt Greene, the school district’s director of employee services. “That helps with the continuity of the program.”

Los Angeles Unified’s system is part of a new statewide computer initiative intended to cut delays in background checks of school employees across California.

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The Department of Justice is installing 100 of the machines at county offices of education, sheriff’s departments and other sites. The state gave four of the machines to Los Angeles Unified, which has spent nearly $450,000 for nine others.

The district is believed to be the first in the state to tap into the new system, which state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren will unveil at a Los Angeles Unified news conference Wednesday.

Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified also are getting machines.

State legislation enacted last year called for the Department of Justice to create the statewide computer system. The legislation came in the wake of the slaying of a student at Rio Linda High School near Sacramento. The suspect was a school custodian whose previous felony conviction was unknown to school officials.

State law now requires school districts to conduct background searches before hiring prospective employees. Those found to have convictions for serious or violent felonies are not eligible to work for schools.

Besides shortening waits, the new computerized system will produce more reliable prints, school officials said. At Los Angeles Unified, prints have traditionally been taken by rolling applicants’ fingers on a clear chemical and then on a fingerprint card.

State officials say such methods produce smudges about 5% of the time, forcing them to return the prints by mail to school districts to be redone.

“With better quality prints you are going to get better accuracy out of the system,” said Gary Cooper, assistant chief of the state Department of Justice’s criminal identification bureau.

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With the new devices, the applicants place their fingers over optical scanners, which in turn display the digitized prints on video screens and send the images over phone lines to Sacramento.

The equipment will be particularly useful in Los Angeles Unified, where school officials process 15,000 new job applicants a year, a quarter of them teaching candidates.

The new equipment surprised at least one prospective teacher on Monday.

“I never saw anything like this,” said Justin Howard, 22, as he rolled his fingers across a pink-colored light. “I was ready for ink. It surprised me.”

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Teacher Test

High-tech fingerprint scanners allow school district officials to cut back drastically on the amount of time it takes to do a criminal background check. A digita scan of a job applicant’s fingerprint is sent over a phone line to the state Department of Justice. There, a computer checks to see if the loops, ridges and other features of the print match any in its files.


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