Colorado education department asking thousands of educators for new criminal background checks

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The Colorado Department of Education. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Colorado Department of Education. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Ann SchimkeChalkbeat  

About 3,000 Colorado school district employees have been or will be told they must get new criminal background checks after a routine FBI audit found incomplete records in the state’s licensing database.

The state Department of Education began sending out letters about 18 months ago requesting that educators with incomplete files submit new fingerprints to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation so new background checks can be conducted. Some educators have done so, but department officials said they haven’t tracked that number and don’t know how many remain. The educators include teachers, principals, administrators and other kinds of staff.

The letters encourage recipients to submit fingerprints within three months, but require them to do so before renewing their state licenses, which are good for one, three, five or seven years depending on the type.

Of the 3,000 educators who had incomplete files, some were missing state background checks, some were missing federal background checks and some were missing both. State officials say background checks were conducted for the employees, but for unknown reasons the results didn’t transmit to the education department’s database. This was discovered only during a 2015 FBI audit.

“This is more record-keeping than anything,” said Colleen O’Neil, the department’s director of teacher licensing.

She said the missing background checks don’t constitute a safety concern and that parents should not worry that their child’s teacher didn’t undergo a background check. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has background checks for the educators and would notify the department if any were arrested or convicted in Colorado.

The department typically learns of out-of-state arrests of educators either from school district staff, who are often notified by law enforcement, or through routine scans of news reports, said O’Neil.

Starting in 1992, new Colorado teachers and other school staff had to submit fingerprints for criminal background checks when applying for state licenses. In 2003, the law changed to include veteran educators as well.

All told, the FBI audit revealed that 10,000 of the 120,000 educators licensed by the state were missing complete background checks. However, around 7,000 of those employees are now retired or inactive and not expected to renew their licenses.

For the 3,000 teachers and other school staff who need to submit new fingerprints, the education department is waiving a $40 submission fee. However, they still have to pay a $39.50 processing fee that goes to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the FBI.

O’Neil said the biggest concerns she’s heard are coming from educators frustrated that they have to re-submit fingerprints.

They are saying, “But I did them. Why do I have to do them again?” she said.

O’Neil, who herself had to re-submit fingerprints to ensure her background check file is complete, said she sympathizes with educators, but said state law requires licensed educators to have complete background checks on file with the department.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.