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PTA ASKS FOR TOUGHER BACKGROUND CHECKS

Mary Hammond believes the Granite School District violated its sacred duty to provide a safe haven for her children because a teacher at their junior high had an expunged arrest record.

The teacher was arrested for selling drugs, but his arrest record was later expunged, meaning that in the eyes of the law the violations never occurred. The teacher was fired. He sued to be reinstated, but his dismissal was upheld in federal court."I want you to personally ask yourselves if you would want this person teaching your child," Hammond, a state PTA official, asked the Legislature's Education Interim Committee.

State PTA leaders and state school officials lobbied the interim committee Wednesday, seeking a strengthening of the state law governing criminal background checks on school personnel.

Another teacher, who came to Utah after a California felony conviction involving sexual activity with high school students, taught school here until an anonymous tipster alerted school officials of his prior record.

"In education we call it the dance of the lemons. Another state forces someone to resign and sends them on to Utah (to teach)," said Roger Mouritsen, coordinator of certification and personnel development in the State Office of Education.

Parents are legally required to send their children to school, and they trust the schools to protect them, said PTA President-Elect Joyce Muhlestein. If a child is betrayed by a teacher or another school employee, "the damage lasts a lifetime."

A draft bill now before the interim committee was originally introduced into the 1990 Legislature, but it became stuck in rules.

After hearing testimony Wednesday from educators, parents and law enforcement officials, the committee decided to refer the proposal to a subcommittee, which will consider possible problems in the proposal and make recommended changes.

The proposal would expand the state law, passed in 1986, by allowing private as well as public schools to conduct criminal background checks, requiring criminal background checks as a condition for teacher certification, making teacher-certificate applicants pay for the background checks and allowing the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification to reveal expunged or sealed records on potential or current school employees in regards to drugs, acts of violence or unlawful sexual activity.

By law, the bureau can only release information in expunged or sealed records for background checks on applicants for peace officer jobs, to the State Board of Pardons or by court order.

Bureau Director Richard Townsend questioned the proposed bill, saying he didn't know if it would have made a difference in the California case.

In other states, the restrictions on the release of criminal records range for few to all-encompassing. Townsend said California, for example, has closed records and would not have given out information on the convicted felon to another state as part of a background check for school employment.

Nationally, criminal background checks can be done through the FBI, but that would require Utah passing a law that would meet the approval of the U.S. attorney general, who controls the use of FBI data, he said.

He also argued that Utah's expungement law allows for repentance. He said that loosening restrictions on who can see that information sets a dangerous precedent.

Jerry Nielsen, Granite School District chief of security, pointed out inconsistencies and potential loopholes in the bill, saying that it would still only allow school districts to find out about convictions, not arrests, and it would make school districts pay for background checks but not the State Office of Education.