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New law regarding criminal background checks for school employees

Schools in Northwest Indiana and across the state will be digging a little deeper into the backgrounds of potential employees and volunteers as a result of a new state law.

Legislators began discussing creating such a law last year after several high-profile molestation incidents at schools across the state.

State lawmakers put together a study committee that looked at requiring all adults who work, volunteer or coach in any Indiana public, charter and private schools that accept state dollars to undergo criminal and child abuse background checks.

Authored by Rep. Jeffrey Thompson, R-Lizton, House Enrolled Act 1079 requires school leaders to check the criminal history within 30 days of any applicant who has contact with children. Within 60 days, school leaders also must check to see if an applicant has been reported for child abuse or neglect, and whether the applicant has a teaching license that was suspended in another state.

In addition, the law calls for current school employees to undergo background checks every five years.

Some districts already do extensive checks

Lake Station schools Superintendent Thomas Cripliver said the district has been conducting expanded criminal background checks for a while.

"We also check the registered sexual offender registry, and we've screened nationally and at the state level for the last couple of years, and we'll continue to use those tools," he said. "We contracted with a company called Safe Hiring Solutions, which is also used by several other school districts in the Region."

Cripliver said they already began to check potential employees before they are hired, though the new law gives them 30 days to do so. Cripliver, who is beginning his fourth year as superintendent, said the district checks the background for every teacher, coach, paraprofessional and any other employee hired before they start the job.

Nathan Kleefisch, superintendent for the MSD of Boone Township in Hebron, said the previous requirements of conducting expanded criminal background checks on "all" new hires primarily focused on arrest records, alcohol/drug arrests/convictions, criminal offenses and driving history.

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"HEA 1079 is the new legislation requiring schools to add an expanded child protection-index check through the Department of Child Services," he said. "MSD of Boone Township has always taken these background checks very seriously," he said of the metropolitan school district.

"The time spent upfront conducting a thorough background check for criminal offenses and the new expanded child protection-index check through the DCS reduces the risks of hiring someone with a bad background that may put our students at risk. Since the introduction of this new legislation, MSD of Boone Township has included the extended DCS background checks as part of its hiring process for 'all' employees. In addition, we follow through with the references listed on the application and ask those references for additional references who also are familiar with the applicant."

Other districts also updating policies

Porter Township School Corp. Superintendent Stacey Schmidt said the district is in the process of updating its policy now and will be recommending it to the board for approval at its July meeting.

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"The change for us is that we will be conducting these extensive checks on all of our employees once every five years. We did not have a rescreening process in place prior to this policy revision," she said.

"The rescreening process that will be done on all existing employees (different than the process for an applicant) over a five-year period will be to do an expanded criminal history check."

Michigan City Area Schools spokeswoman Betsy Kohn said its policy requires school officials to conduct a national background check on all potential hires.

She said the criminal background check and DCS search for noncertified staff is approximately $25. The criminal background check and DCS search for certified staff is approximately $30. These costs are paid directly to the company performing the search, Kohn said. 

She said school volunteers also are required to complete a criminal background check.

"We will be reviewing our procedures to ensure we are in compliance with the new Indiana code," she said.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.