Thursday, April 23, 2009

Proposed legislation would protect teachers' criminal history information

A bill before the Texas House of Representatives would prevent a public school employee's criminal record from being made public.  Senate Bill 9, enacted in 2007, required school districts to release the criminal histories of their employees if that information were combined in a document with non-confidential information.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar (D.-Austin) introduced H.B. 4302 in response to allegations that false information was being released about public school employees.

According to the bill analysis:
These criminal history background checks often yield results that are inaccurate or incomplete. The records may include investigations or arrests based on false or erroneous information and even charges that were dismissed for lack of merit. Some records reflect activities from decades ago that are entirely irrelevant to an employee's fitness for the employee's current work. 
If the bill passes, school districts would not be required to release any confidential criminal history information on district employees to any entity to whom the Texas Department of Public Safety or Federal Bureau of Investigation was not required to release the information.

Alejandra Martin (Association of School Personnel Administrators), Ted Melina (Texas AFT) and Martha Owen (Texas AFT) testified in favor of the bill. No witnesses testified against the proposal.

Several newspapers and broadcasters have come out against Rep. Farrar's proposed legislation on the grounds that the public has a right to know. Now, while I generally fall into that camp, in this instance there are some good reasons for this information to be restricted. 

A citizen accused of a crime can receive deferred adjudication probation which would result in a dismissal of the charge upon completion of the probation. In addition, the citizen accused could then seek an order of nondisclosure which would prevent law enforcement agencies from releasing any information about the arrest, charge or disposition to anyone outside law enforcement - with a few exceptions.

One of those exceptions is that the criminal background information is made available to the Texas State Board of Educator Certification and to local school districts. There is a sound public policy argument in favor of that exception. However, without the protections of H.B. 4302, that same information could be released to anyone else upon request -- which would defeat the entire purpose of deferred adjudication.

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