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The cafeteria of West Jefferson High School is allowed to have 25 students at a time in the configuration seen during a tour showing coronavirus precautions of the campus in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. If a divider is installed in the cafeteria, 50 students will be allowed in the room at the same time. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

The once widespread, but still common practice of hiring school employees before the completion of their criminal background checks recently came back to bite the East Baton Rouge Parish school system when it hired a convicted felon to teach at an elementary school — a fact that it learned 13 days after he entered the classroom.

The school system quickly called a halt to such “conditional hiring” right after the controversy broke in early October. Even so, several school districts in Louisiana, including Jefferson Parish public schools, the state’s largest district, still allow it.

They do so despite a 2018 state law that erased previous language saying school employees “may be temporarily hired pending the results” of their official State Police background check.

Phillip Rogers said conditional hiring is a bad practice. The organization he leads, the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, or NASDTEC, maintains a national clearinghouse of teachers who have lost their license — Louisiana is a member. In its training sessions, the organization warns educators against the dangers of moving too quickly when hiring people to work in schools.

“One of the biggest drums we beat is (conducting) background checks, (having) complete screening done before they step into the classroom,” said Rogers, who serves as NASDTEC’s executive director.

It’s a practice that gets more tempting at times like now, when there are numerous vacancies in schools across the country and a shallow pool of applicants to replace them.

Rogers said the idea that current shortages for school employees might lead to less stringent screening of new employees is logical, though he said he hopes that's not the case and he hasn't seen any data to prove it.

“Sometimes people get in a hurry and they think they are a good judge of character and they are not,” Rogers said.

East Baton Rouge, which has had vacancies all year, still had 120 teaching vacancies as of Tuesday, almost three months into the 2021-22 school year.

Red Flags

Robert Earl Tucker Jr.’s lucky break, though it was short-lived, came when a gifted math-and-science teacher at Parkview Elementary left for another job in mid-August. Parkview still has six vacancies.

School officials quickly tapped Tucker to fill the position despite several red flags, including little recent teaching experience, expired teaching credentials as well as contradictions between his résumé and his job application. Also, Tucker had applied 25 times before with the school system and was hired only once before in 2017 to teach at an alternative school — a job he held for just two months before resigning.

Problems arose right away. Children in his classes told their parents their teacher talked to himself. Parkview parents were upset that he wasn’t posting any grades.

In front of one class, according to parents, he accused a student of using the N-word, something other students say didn’t happen. In another oddity, he insisted that students and staff not pronounce his name as “RO-bert TUCK-er” but instead pronounce it in the French manner, as “ro-BEAR two-CARE.”

During this time, an Advocate news story began circulating in which a man of the same name had been convicted in August 2020 of multiple felonies.

Rogers with NASDTEC said that when schools hire people, even briefly, with checkered pasts, it can come out quickly.

“Typically when this happens, the kids and the parents start Googling and it doesn’t take that long to track them down,” he added.

Although common with many employers, the school system does not conduct routine internet searches of job candidates. Beanka Brumfield-Williams, a Human Resources director for the school system, said the district has shied away from internet searches “due to the inability to filter and verify true and untrue information.”

School officials, however, have been looking into hiring a third-party to conduct an additional “background screener” for job applicants. On Friday, school officials said they are still researching and vetting companies that could conduct such screening.

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No longer permitted — but not forbidden.

In 1986, Louisiana was among the first states to start requiring fingerprint scans of new school employees. Over the years, it has added substitute teachers, volunteers and vendors to the list of those required to have background checks.

In 2018, Louisiana overhauled the criminal background check process again, approving legislation sponsored by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria. The law was meant to tighten loopholes in the law that were being used by teachers who lost their license to still get work as teachers elsewhere.

One part of the new law removed a provision which had previously expressly permitted districts to hire applicants during the interim while State Police completed their background checks. The new law, however, did not go further and forbid such conditional hiring.

The provision that was removed dated back to the days when background checks could take months to complete. In recent years, though, State Police has greatly sped up the process. The agency says the average turnaround these days is three to five days, though in Tucker’s case it took 21 days.

Harris’ law also set up a civil fine that BESE can levy against school districts that “knowingly” hire convicted felons and others barred from working in schools.

Conditional hiring continues

Many districts updated their hiring policies in 2018 and 2019 to reflect the new law. Other districts, including East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Livingston parishes, kept the old permissive language in their policies, taking advantage of the new law not forbidding conditional hiring.

Also, in guidance to charter schools about background checks, the Louisiana Department of Education still says that school employees “may be temporarily hired pending the results” of their background check.

A few schools adopted rules more restrictive than state law. Ascension Parish, for instance, says in its employee handbook that “no employee will start work until fingerprinting has been cleared through the (State Police) database.”

Even as it was dropping conditional hiring, East Baton Rouge Parish officials have defended the practice.

In a short Oct. 6 memo to the School Board, attorney Gwynn Shamlin said continued conditional hiring was justified by language in another state law “authorizing Boards to employ applicants in a conditional manner."

The other law, though, deals not with criminal background checks, but with sexual misconduct records. It requires Louisiana public schools to obtain information on sexual misconduct from any other public schools in the state the applicant previously worked for and to do so within 20 days. It allows for hiring on a “conditional basis” while that information transfer occurs.

East Baton Rouge, however, is no longer doing conditional hiring either.

Rogers, with NASDTEC, said that criminal background checks are just the start. Schools need a robust process to check non-criminal issues of applicants, which in his view is a much greater problem area and an area that his organization tracks closely.

“About 99% of educators who lose their licenses never go to court, they never get fingerprinted,” Rogers said.

The need for full screenings prior to hiring is even more important when it comes to school personnel such as coaches, paraprofessionals and bus drivers, for whom there is less information readily available, he said.

“Make sure whoever is in that classroom or whoever is driving that bus that they are safe to be around children,” he said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.

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