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Special Report: What Local School Districts Do With Fingerprints They Take Of Employees

Two years ago, Texas stepped up its efforts at performing background checks on school district employees by using employees’ fingerprints. For the three largest districts in El Paso, that means fingerprinting nearly 20,000 employees.

“If it’s to protect the kids and you’re here for the kids, then you shouldn’t have any problem making sure that they are safe,” Esther Wolski said.

Anyone who refused or failed to comply with the new state law risked losing certification and a job. The law covers not just full-time teachers. In Texas, it’s also thumbs down for all subsitute teachers and aides, certified or not, and non-certified employees hired since 2008.

With the roll of a finger and a quick digital scan employees turn over a warehouse of personal information, and some don’t like it.

“I felt very intimidated, i felt very apprehensive,” one school district employee who did not want to be identified said.

She’s been with the district for 20 years and insists she has nothing to hide, but she calls the background checks degrading and humiliating to respectable educators.

“If they need to check on people who have been with the district for awhile, let’s look at their record with the district before you go probing into their lives.”

School administrators disagree. As director of human resources for the Socorro Indpendent School District, Rene Chavez makes sure all 1,700 employees in his district submit their prints.

“We come up with a lot of misdemeanors,” Chavez said.

If the search uncovers a criminal past, administrators take into account the type of crime and when it was committed, then decide whether the employee or potential employee is fit for the position.

“Once we find out the information, we destroy the records,” Chavez said.

By law, distict officials do not have to keep on file any of the information it uncovers, which means district officials could not provide us any information about employees with criminal records. Officials with El Paso and Ysleta Independent School Districts refused to explain their policies or why they don’t keep records, SISD officials did.

Administrators can’t even share information with other school districts. The texas education agency trusts each school district will verify its own employees’ background.

“The state does not want us sharing any of that information,” Chavez said. “They have been very adamant about this.”

In 2008, the state provided districts some funds to cover the cost of fingerprinting, but now it’s up to each new employees to foot the bill.

“I don’t mind being fingerprinted, it’s the fact that we have to pay for it,” Hallie Hunter said. As a substitute teacher, she says the $52.20 it costs to get fingerprinted is money she just does not have.

“It comes at a time when people are really not getting paid very much,” Hunter said.

Districts send them to a private company called L1 Identitiy Solutions, which sends the fingerprints to the Department of Public Safety and the FBI. They, then, match the data on state and nationwide databases, and send the results back to the districts. Soon, this process may replace a program used by EPISD and SISD called Safe Schools.

“It’s just another layer that we use,” Chavez said.

Safe Schools helps districts keep track of felons across county and even state lines by matching an applicant’s name and date of birth with criminal databases, but SISD is thinking of saving the $42,000 dollars a year it pays for the program.

“District’s budgets are tightening up, we may look at not using safe schools in the future since we are using the fingerprinting process,” Chavez said. “That gets us the information that we need, and it’s actually more accurate than just a name-based search.”

Chavez says thorough checks is are the only way to really find out who is spending all day and almost everyday with your children.

“We are with them every single day, Monday through Friday,” Wolski said. “Some of the kids stay after school and with the times that we’re living in right now, with parents sometimes having to hold down sometimes, two, three or four jobs, these kids are our kids and we need to treat them as our kids.”

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