A Life In Letters: H.R. 2083

A bill is moving through Congress to put in place a common set of standards for criminal background checks for educators.  The bill, sponsored by George Miller, the California Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Education and Workforce Committee, passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. Addressing this problem is a longstanding challenge.

This morning, an AP story today about the bill sparked some debate on Twitter because it stated that, 

The [George Miller] bill has run into objections from major teachers’ unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In letters to lawmakers, their criticisms included concerns that the measure might jeopardize workers’ protections under union contracts.

In addition, the NEA wrote that criminal background checks “often have a huge, racially disparate impact” — a reference to critics’ complaints that minorities make up a disproportionately high proportion of people convicted of crimes.

Responding to a tweet from Campbell Brown American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said on Twitter that,”if [you] simply read our letter to Congress our position supporting background checks is obvious.”

The AFT subsequently published the letter and if you read it their position is actually not entirely obvious. Basically they like the spirit of the effort, but not the specifics. Not all of their objections are unreasonable (false positives are an issue, for instance)  yet they don’t want the bill to apply to anyone but new teachers or to include a finite time period for checks and want deference to state systems for doing this even though the problematic and porous nature of those state systems is a large part of the impetus for federal action. They also want deference to existing provisions in collective bargaining agreements and state law even though some of those rules are a part of the problem. Collectively those are big loopholes making it hard to read the letter as the strong unambiguous support Weingarten claims or fault the AP’s characterization of the state of play. You can’t fairly characterize the AFT position as seeking to protect sex-offenders but it is a position that places other employment priorities ahead of ensuring 100 percent compliance with background checks and could have that effect.*

The NEA was more direct, their letter to House members is below. As we saw in California with the bill that Governor Jerry Brown vetoed, earlier this month(pdf) the devil is in the details of these things and lies between being for something in general or for it in the specifics.

October 21, 2013
The Honorable XXXXXX
U.S. House of Representatives 
XXXXX House Office Building 
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Congressman XXXXXXXX:
On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we would like to offer the following views on H.R. 2083 to require criminal background checks for school employees, which will be voted on tomorrow.
A safe and secure learning environment is a critical component of a quality education. Educators firmly believe that students need a safe and non-threatening environment to be able to learn to their full potential. Time and again educators have done everything in their power to ensure the health and safety of the students entrusted to them, sometimes even giving their lives—shielding students from harm with their own bodies when a tornado hit in Oklahoma, a shooter invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, a gunman hijacked a school bus in rural Alabama, and on countless other occasions.  
NEA supports timely pre-employment criminal background checks for all school employees who work with children without supervision. NEA also supports the sharing of the results of such checks while protecting employees’ due process and privacy rights.
However, the debate around this issue on the Hill seems to be playing out without considering that criminal background checks often have a huge, racially disparate impact. In addition, we are concerned that H.R. 2083, while well intentioned, may run counter to existing state laws requiring background checks.  
Educators are everyday heroes: teaching, protecting, purchasing school supplies with their own money, filling backpacks with food for needy children on weekends, and performing countless other acts of ordinary exceptionalism. We look forward to working with Congress to attain the goal we all share: ensuring safe schools for all of our nation’s children so they have the opportunity to focus on learning.
Mary Kusler       
Director, Government Relations

Update: Lively debate about this continuing on Twitter.  Jump to one thread here.

*This sentence edited for clarity from an earlier version of this post.

6 Replies to “A Life In Letters: H.R. 2083”

  1. Campbell Brown,
    Really, Andy.
    Even by the evidence cited by you in previous posts to defend you and her view that teachers and their unions protect child abusers, shows that she lies.
    Randi would have been better off the ignorant fool.

  2. The vast majority of teachers, like the vast majority of parents, protect our children each day. These people deserve our utmost gratitude.

    As we found out from the scandals at Penn State and Los Angeles Unified, these horrible crimes occur when administrators ignore the complaints from parents, students and teachers.

    Although the laws regarding reporting are strict, the punishments are often light or nonexistent. For example, when John Deasy failed to report a sexual perpetrator to the state, as required by law, nothing happened to him. In fact, his contract was recently renewed!!!

  3. I don’t know… I’m just wary of the Feds trying to stick their noses in yet another aspect of K-12 education. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I’m pretty sure most, if not all, states already have criminal background check requirements (at least the states I taught in certainly did). I was fingerprinted, etc. when I worked in California, MD and VA.

    What’s the point of this new Congressional attempt? Just more red tape and potential conflicts with existing state laws? Call me cynical…

  4. Thanks, Attorney. As someone who taught for 42 years, I know the basic problem is with the reporting of these crimes. Sadly, sexual abuse by teachers does occasionally happen but it is extremely rare. Administration is often well aware of potential for, or actual abuse (by parents or employees) but is VERY reluctant to report it. Cover-ups are so common that I would characterize them as the norm. Here’s a perfect example from my experience:

    A school principal was acting very strangely and the teachers were afraid he’d do something criminal. Specifically, we were afraid he’d hurt a student or teacher. So we complained to the superintendent, who actually came to our school and accused the teachers of “gossiping.” About a month later, the principal went to the home of a teacher and threatened her with a loaded gun while in a drunken rage. He was immediately fired and reported to the police, but the teachers never received an apology. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the teacher sued and got a generous settlement. If he had shot the teacher, it would have been a scandal like Penn State because the teachers had reported his behavior and the superintendent was aware. Now that I think of it, I should have reported it to the local newspaper, as it would have made a great story.

    The real problem is this: Many (most?) school leaders place the reputation of their school or district above the safety of students and employees. But like most problems in education, the “solutions” often relate to a fabricated problem as in the case of the sexually abusive teacher who can’t be fired. Of course, such a teacher can be fired on the spot and usually is. The problem is with the teacher who is accused without any evidence. Some people want these teachers fired when there is a mere suspicion of abuse. Well, if we’re lucky, that won’t happen in the United States. If a district seriously suspects a teacher of abuse, that individual can, and should be, under careful supervision. Of course, all complaints should be taken seriously.

    What we need are serious consequences for administrators like Deasy, who know about a perpetrator but don’t report it as required by law. These are the people, along with the abusers, who need to lose their jobs.

    Students of history know that in difficult economic times, public sector workers are often scapegoated. That’s what’s happening to teachers now. When we’ve passed this shameful place in our history, people who took pot shots at our mostly hard-working, dedicated teachers will likely feel shame and guilt. That day can’t come soon enough for me.

  5. Update on Campbell Brown and Oedipus:
    Who’s Really Behind Campbell Brown’s Sneaky Education Outfit?
    The former CNN anchor says her nonprofit seeks to protect kids from predators in the classroom. Its real agenda … union-busting.

    It is the law, not union contracts, that requires that an independent arbitrator hear and mete out punishment in cases of sexual misconduct that fall outside criminal law. The quickest route to changing that policy may be lobbying lawmakers in Albany, not hammering teachers and their unions.

    Before Brown left CNN three years ago, her evening news show carried a memorable tagline: “No bias. No bull.” She can’t say the same for her foray into the education wars.

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