Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Outrage: Dallas Independent School District Flubs Background Checks; Risks Kids Safety - Who's at Fault?

If my child was attending school in the Dallas ISD, I'd be marching outside of the TEA building in Austin right now demanding that the state take over administration of the district. Or would I?

Plagued by multiple ethical and financial scandals in recent years, this current expose serves to further reveal the abject nature of the administrative arrogance that has characterized this school district for too long - now, placing both students and employees at risk. First, by failing to implement an effective employee screening program, and second, by rewriting immigration law in order to expedite the integration of alien school workers into the district. Both serious problems in a vacuum, but wholly inexcusable given the elevated threat school districts face from terrorism.

Neither of the issues mentioned are new. Both have roots prior to 9/11. In 1989 Texas school districts received authorization to check the backgrounds of newly hired school employees. Effectively, DISD has struggled with administering a proper employee background check program since that time. In 1992, after a Dallas Morning News investigation found 185 school district employees to have felony records, DISD administration set out to tighten background check procedures. In 2001, in what would appear to be a sensible commingling of expertise, DISD contracted with Safe Advantage Services (AKA "the Safe Schools Project") to be the district's background check service provider. Safe Advantage is a Dallas based database company headed by former DISD personnel administrator Mark Myers.

But problems continued. According to a December, 2006 report issued by the Dallas Morning News, by the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year the district had fallen behind by about a year in getting information back from Safe Advantage. As reported by the News, DISD assumed some of the blame but only to the extent of admitting that administrators placed "no demands" on the vendor to turn the background checks around in a reasonable time. But this is hard to believe says Russ Rosenberg, President of Asset control. "I can't believe the vendor was at fault. Though inaccurate, database searches are quick turn by nature. If the guy who ran the background screening company was a former ISD personnel administrator he had to be sensitive to just how important that information was to the safety of the students in the district. It's more likely that the information was getting to the district but no one was listening, or, the searches were getting to the vendor long after the employee was hired, or not at all. This is just one man's opinion but I think the district was grossly negligent on this one. In all likelihood the vendor fell on the sword to help the ISD save face." Regardless, says Rosenberg, student safety was at risk.

As of November 2008, Dallas ISD has fingerprinted 10,305 certified employees, teachers and principals, according to A new law requiring all Texas school districts to begin fingerprinting employees went into effect January 1, 2008. About 13 percent, or just over 1300 educators in the Dallas ISD were found to have criminal records according to the report. This is troubling says Rosenberg. "This is higher than the 11 percent rate we have observed among applicants being screened for "non professional" positions. Although it is unclear just how many of the reported number were already known to the school district. More troubling yet are the 20 educators with disqualifying convictions who got past the system. That's the problem with database searches. They miss records."

But going to a system that relies solely on FBI fingerprint matches for background checks is not going to solve the district's problems. FBI system and FBI fingerprint checks are spotty at best. They are nothing more than a large database. According to the Bureau's own statistics, they have conviction information for only about 50% of the arrest fingerprints they have on file. This means that school districts will get incomplete information on many of the reports the FBI system provides. They will have to turn to the courts to get the updated information they need. Additionally, there is neither law nor mandatory process that ensures that fingerprint cards and conviction records will flow from counties through state agencies to the FBI. The process is voluntary. Thus, the same afflictions that dilute the accuracy of many state repositories throughout the nation also affect the accuracy of the FBI record system. The problem is compounded by the fact that many records will be missed entirely.

Federal law enforcement agencies abandoned the practice of exclusively using NCIC or the FBI fingerprint system to screen their own internal applicants decades ago, says Bill Dolphin, V.P. of Compliance with Asset Control. "Today, they combine database searches with real courthouse research. This is the same process we use for our corporate clients who are concerned about using "due diligence" procedures to protect their employees and customers. The same diligent efforts should go in to screening the educators and others with whom we entrust the safety of our kids.

Creativity or Criminal Behavior
Last month the Dallas Morning News ran a story entitled "Dallas ISD Faulted for using Fake Social Security Numbers". The News has rarely pulled punches when criticizing DISD administration. But it appears to be doing so now. "Faulted" - an interesting choice of words under the circumstances. In an effort to bring bi-lingual educators into the district, and on the heals of an aggressive, on-going, campaign to recruit teachers from south of the boarder, DISD personnel administrators rewrote immigration law by reassigning social security numbers from legitimate holders to the new recruits - an alleged temporary measure to get them on the payroll and into the system. According to the Dallas Morning News, some of the fake SSN's were unknowingly used by the state's educator certification office to run criminal background checks on new hires.

During his 30 year career as an internal auditor and investigator Bill Dolphin has encountered end runs around policy - but never anything so arrogant and on this scale. "Last week Homeland Security arrested one of their regional directors for knowingly hiring an illegal alien to clean her home. The basis for the charge was encouraging an illegal alien to remain in the country. Clearly, this was an effort to make a point. This administrator was in a position to know better and to enforce the law herself. I see a parallel to the current situation in DISD. Personnel administrators are supposed to be professionals. Their training includes labor law and immigration documentation. The decision to use bogus SSN's was likely not made by an hourly paid clerk. Put in the context of 9/11 this is a criminal matter in my opinion."

But Dolphin agrees with superintendent Hinojosa's decision to bring in a special investigator to look into the matter. "I don't think he had a choice. He's been under a lot of fire himself lately. He had to get this one right. It was necessary to mitigate any action by the state. Former U.S. attorney Paul Coggins is highly respected. His involvement will be seen as a good faith effort by the district to conduct a proper investigation. I don't see criminal charges coming from this but I don't rule out some sort of civil enforcement action. Notwithstanding, criminal laws were clearly broken."

The story is not a simple as would seem. While the use of bogus SSN's was described in a report by the District's internal investigative office in September of this year, the practice was first uncovered by the TEA in 2004. According to the News, TEA told the district that the practice was illegal then. According to DISD officials the practice went on for several years before being discontinued this past summer. "We're not sure what action was taken by the TEA when the illegal use of numbers was first uncovered", says Rosenberg. "Whatever it was, it was not enough. The matter should have been referred to the State Auditor's Office for review. They audit schools too as a matter of course. Clearly, the weak follow-up or lack of follow-up by the TEA contributed to the illegality continuing for several more years. Within the context of 9/11 it should have occurred to someone that this practice was extremely dangerous."

Investigative, audit and internal ethics programs have no direct influence on educating our students. However, aggressive programs of this nature can prevent the kind of waste, fraud, and corruption that has plagued DISD. Ultimately, this translates into more resources for the classroom. "But there is a more powerful argument for putting the microscope on DISD", explains Bill Dolphin. "Student safety has been placed at risk. This is the issue that should grab your attention. Employment screening is a personnel function in some organizations and a security function in others. Regardless of where it resides, the process must be subject to outside review. Ultimately, DISD must examine the effectiveness of its own ethics/audit/ investigative function(s). But the effectiveness of any such function in DISD would likely be hindered by internal politics. Nevertheless, its something that has to be addressed and appropriately funded - given proper leadership."

Notwithstanding, says Russ Rosenberg, the topic of the internal control function within school districts needs to be examined, whether by the TEA or by the State Auditor. "How much resources should be allocated, what ought to be reviewed and with what frequency is a question that needs attention at a higher level." In the meantime, school boards and school administrators should appreciate that they are responsible for maintaining a safe and ethical environment for students and employees. Districts might turn to outside consultants, such as Asset Control, to help assess the thoroughness of their efforts. Using third parties to conduct such reviews provides an unbiased assessment of the adequacy and effectiveness of internal controls.


At 9:27 AM, Anonymous people search said...

In that cases they should always do
background check safely and accurately. Don't put the students a risk. They should be given that proper attention.

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Leslie said...

Whenever children are involved a criminal background check needs to be run to protect our children.


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