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I-TEAM SPECIAL REPORT: Teacher Criminal Backgrounds

It’s been over a month since a teacher at Chaparral High School was indicted for allegedly threatening an ex-girlfriend.

Samuel Lara, 31, also murdered his father when he was a teenager. But because his records were sealed as a minor, he slipped through the cracks and was allowed to work as an educator.

Last fall, ABC-7 set out to see if the system works when it comes to background checks for school district employees in El Paso County.

All districts in Texas do background checks before they hire employees. In fact, all are required to fingerprint them by law.

Through several open records requests, ABC-7 obtained a list of teachers in Texas and compared that to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s criminal background database.

Of the hundreds of names showing arrests, the I-Team matched six convictions handed down in El Paso County with the names and birth dates of local teachers.

The name of a teacher Mesa Vista Elementary School in the Ysleta School District matched the name and birth date of a man convicted of ‘burglary of a habitation’ in 1992. It was the only felony the I-Team’s investigation revealed.

The investigation also uncovered several misdemeanor convictions.

In the El Paso School District, a 1989 ‘assault’ conviction matched the name of a teacher at Austin High School.

A ‘disorderly conduct’ conviction, also 21 years ago, matched a teacher at Chapin High School.

‘Resisting arrest’ in 2004 matched a teacher’s name at Guillen Middle School.

In San Elizario, a 1991 ‘disorderly conduct’ conviction matched a teacher at Alarcon Elementary School.

Another ‘disorderly conduct’ conviction in 1989 matched a name at YISD’s South Loop Elementary.

The I-Team also expanded the investigation beyond the classroom to include other school district employees.

Eight names and birth dates matched those with convictions in El Paso County, six of them misdemeanors.

They included a 2006 ‘animal cruelty’ conviction matching a YISD bus driver, a 1995 ‘assault’ conviction matching a mechanic in the Socorro School District and a 1991 ‘reckless conduct’ conviction matching a security guard in the Tornillo School District.

As for felonies for non-teaching district employees, the I-Team found two matches.

The first was a 1991 ‘theft of property’ conviction that matched up to an educational aide at YISD’s Riverside High School.

The second, a 1990 ‘theft from a person’ conviction and a 1991 ‘aggravated robbery’ conviction corresponding with the name and birth date of an education aide at YISD’s Glen Cove Elementary School.

The Glen Cove employee spoke with ABC-7 but didn’t want to be identified. He confirmed he served hard time for his crimes, but says he has since turned his life around.

The employee added he sometimes sees kids going down the wrong path, the way he did, and tries to use his experience to steer the children away from trouble.

The most common crime uncovered by the I-Team’s research was driving while intoxicated.

The investigation turned up 93 conviction matches in El Paso County, with 24 of the names listed matching the names of teachers.

Rene Chavez, Director of Human Resources at SISD, says when it comes to hiring someone with a DWI, there are several things to consider.

“For example, if we’re going to hire a bus driver, we will not hired them if they have a DWI just because it directly relates to their job duties,” Chavez told ABC-7. “If it’s a teacher, we will hire one with DWI. But, if they have more than one in the last year or two, we analyze it carefully.”

YISD and EPISD would not sit down with ABC-7 for this story. They instead pointed to their employment policies.

By state law, a person cannot be hired by the district if they’re convicted of a felony under Title 5 of the Texas Penal Code.

Title 5 includes violent crimes like murder, manslaughter and kidnapping. It also covers sexual crimes like sexual assault.

None of the crimes mentioned in this report fall under the Title 5 category.

That means even those identified through the I-Team’s research are clear to work for the school districts.

All of the parents ABC-7 spoke with at some of the campuses mentioned told us they weren’t really worried. If the employees met the district’s guidelines, their past is their past, they told us.

“I’m sure the district took the precaution to do the background checks they needed to,” said one man outside Mesa Vista Elementary.

“Some people make mistakes when they’re young,” said a mother outside Austin High.

School districts are confident they are thoroughly screening job applicants before they go on campus, and the parents we spoke with are confident…the system works.

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