State enacts bill for print checks

By Se Young Lee

The Illinois state government has passed a new bill to strengthen criminal check procedures for employees in public schools. However, the measures have temporarily placed administrative and financial burdens on these schools.

On August 12, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed House Bill 3977, requiring a fingerprint-based criminal history records check for all prospective employees of every K-12 public school in the state.

Carmelita Thomas, the director of human resources for Urbana School District 116, said that prior to August 12, the procedure for employment in public schools was a name-only search that required the schools to submit an application for each prospective employee to the Illinois State Police.

The state police would run the application, which contained basic information such as name, date of birth and driver’s license number through its database. If one of the applications returned with a possible criminal conviction, state police would request fingerprints.

The new bill, however, requires a mandatory fingerprint-based check that will match up all submitted prints with a national criminal record database compiled by the FBI.

State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Champaign), one of the 15 state House sponsors of the bill, said in an e-mail that the new law will do a better job of protecting children who attend public schools in the state.

“There have been … instances in Illinois where a person convicted of a felony in another state has been hired to work at a school because our former law only required a background check in Illinois,” Jakobsson said. “It is important that we make sure people taking jobs in our schools have a clean record in Illinois and around the nation. This law is a more thorough check to ensure we are keeping our children safe.”

Kris Fitzpatrick, assistant chief of the University of Illinois Police, said students and staff who work with K-12 students will be subject to the fingerprint checks in accordance to the state mandate.

However, the new mandate – while addressing a serious problem in the previous criminal check procedure – appears to have created problems in the public school districts.

Thomas said the state could have done a better job in alerting and assisting the schools adapt to the new procedures.

“It really took the Urbana and Champaign school districts by surprise,” Thomas said. “There weren’t any heads-up. I actually heard about it on (the) news. We had no time to put in procedures in place.”

Jakobsson, however, believed the schools should have had plenty of prior warnings.

“As with any law, the legislation was thoroughly debated before the General Assembly,” Jakobsson said in an e-mail. “School districts hire people in Springfield to be aware of legislation that affects them and find out how bills will affect our local schools. The schools were aware of this bill as it moved through the legislative process and became law.”

Under the new bill, Thomas said Urbana School District 116 could no longer rely on the state police to conduct the background checks and was forced to scramble to find private vendors who were qualified to conduct the necessary testing. As a result, she said, the schools had to cover the unexpected additional costs.

While the law calls for “two semi-annual installments” to fund the procedure, the money is not scheduled to be given to the schools until Oct. 30 and April 30 of each fiscal year, delaying the reimbursement process.

“Keeping our children safe should be a top priority of the state and I am working to make sure we don’t place additional state burdens on our schools,” Jakobsson said.

Thomas said the Urbana district was able to hire a vendor from Springfield to meet the new requirements despite the difficulties created by the new legislation.

“Educators are very resilient and resourceful,” she said.