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The Journal Gazette

September 23, 2016 1:02 AM

Test of accountability

Tighten rules on all schools to assure top-notch teachers

At the same time lawmakers face a challenge in attracting educators to Indiana schools, they also must find ways to keep some out. An interim study committee is grappling with the problem of screening school employees in light of some high-profile cases and a study that found weaknesses in its background check system.

As long as schools struggle to attract educators, the risk of hiring individuals who shouldn’t be around students grows greater.

The panel also received results this week of a statewide survey on the teacher shortage, including this comment, from an administrator who reported one-fifth the number of teaching applicants the district normally received: “We have seen a decrease in quantity and quality of applicants.”

Student safety is a priority, of course, so the work of the Interim Study Committee on Education this week to tighten the background checks system is vital. The panel approved recommendations to require more frequent background checks. Initial screenings would have to be done before school employees begin work. Currently, school districts have three months before the checks must be completed. Another recommendation is to require school officials to check employees’ references, including a candidate’s most recent supervisor.

Adults who prey on young people look for access and opportunity. If they are caught engaging in misconduct in a school and allowed to leave without other repercussions, it’s not unlikely they will seek employment in another school.

Indiana’s current lax approach to sharing information on sexual misconduct in schools was one of the reasons it earned an F in a recent USA Today study on teacher background checks.

The study commission also looked at streamlining the process of revoking a teacher’s license and requiring school employees to undergo background checks every five years, not just at hiring. The checks would apply to any school employee who has contact with children, including coaches and substitutes.

The tighter rules should apply to all schools, not just public schools. With education funds flowing to hundreds of private and parochial schools across the state through the voucher program, the state must demand greater accountability from those schools in sharing information about licensing and discipline. The competition between public and private schools puts pressure on both to conceal any negative publicity, but it’s easier for a private school – not subject to public access laws – to do so.

The steps recommended by the panel represent a good first step, but the state can do even more to protect students and ensure its schools attract the best educators and employees.