Sunday, December 26, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Oregon Teachers Face Fingerprint Checks -- New Law Designed To Keep Child Abusers, Sex Offenders Out Of School, Day-Care Jobs


SALEM, Ore. - Fingerprinting will be part of expanded background checks required of new teachers, some other school employees and day-care providers under a state law that will go into effect Jan. 1.

Government agencies now have the power to conduct in-state criminal-record checks, but nothing beyond that.

The new law, passed by the 1993 Oregon Legislature, provides for fingerprinting so records can be checked nationally through the FBI.

The idea is to spot applicants for school or day-care jobs who have convictions for child abuse, sex offenses or other crimes that should disqualify them from holding such jobs.

"We want to have a safe school setting for students," said Greg McMurdo, deputy state school superintendent.

`Quite a deterrent'

McMurdo said the fingerprinting program probably will discourage people with criminal backgrounds from seeking school or day-care jobs.

"There is quite a deterrent in fingerprinting people," he said.

People subject to the background checks will include applicants for state licenses as teachers and school administrators, and for counselors, nurses and non-teaching employees who have direct, unsupervised contact with students.

That would include classroom assistants, bus drivers, custodians and secretaries.

The chief sponsor of the fingerprinting legislation, Rep. Peter Courtney, said he wished the new law had been written to apply to current employees. That approach was rejected as too costly, however.

"It's possible that we now have in our school districts individuals who have sex offenses in their background," the Salem Democrat said.

Still, Courtney said, the new law is a big improvement over the current system.

"It tells the sex offenders who want to come to Oregon and work in our school districts that they going to be subject to a background check and that they are going to be found out," he said.

The Legislature passed the new law partly out of concern that Oregon was becoming a "haven" for sex offenders seeking employment in school or day-care settings. That's because neighboring states already do fingerprint checks.

"Sex offenders are ingenious about getting close to the people they want to victimize," Courtney said.

"That was another reason we desperately had to catch up with Washington and California."

In a related move, a state commission recently adopted a new rule to require school superintendents to inform the state when a teacher resigns or is fired for gross misconduct.

`Bad apples' just moved on

The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission adopted the rule because of several incidents around the state in which teachers suspected of sexual offenses were allowed to resign, then get new teaching jobs elsewhere.

"Sometimes school districts would permit an educator to resign and move on, and would not report the fact that there was sufficient evidence of wrongdoing," said David Myton, executive secretary of the commission.

"That has the effect of passing bad apples to the next district."

That has happened mainly in smaller districts where superintendents lacked the time or resources to fully investigate reports of misconduct by teachers, Myton said.

"Sometimes if the educator offers to resign, it's tempting to accept the resignation" without having to mount an investigation, he said.

Under the rule, failure by a school superintendent to report such misconduct could result in the superintendent being found guilty of gross neglect of duty.

Courtney said the state has no choice but to take steps to keep people with criminal backgrounds out of schools and day-care settings.

"It's always sad when you have to pass a bill to protect children. You would think that as adults, there are certain things we wouldn't do when it comes to kids," he said.

"But that's not the case. You have to pass legislation like this."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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