A New Jersey law that just went into effect requires school board members and charter school trustees to pass a criminal background check. More than 300 Garden State education officials must resign because they have not completed the background check.
However, the urgency of the matter was never conveyed to school board members, according to Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
“This is a new requirement that went into effect over the summer. At first, it was a delay because the state needed to receive a clearance from the federal government to access certain files with the FBI,” he said. “Once that clearance was received, it was the middle of the summer, board members were told to go ahead and arrange for the background checks but the urgency was never there.”
Belluscio said school board membership is a volunteer, unpaid gig people do in addition to their regular jobs. So, he says, completing the background check may not have been the first thing on board members’ minds.
At last count, 189 school board members around the state had not finished the background check. That’s about one out of every 25. Another 165 charter school trustees had not complied. Belluscio said, as the law stands, none of these board members can continue to serve.
“Those board members who have not completed the background checks could go ahead and complete them, and they would be eligible to be appointed back to their boards — but that will not be automatic,” he said.
Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, said he doesn’t think this sort of requirement is going too far.
“We think it’s important for child-serving professionals to have child abuse background checks. For example, we require our own volunteer lawyers to produce background checks and we’ve had to remove a few good lawyers from our own cases because they’ve not complied,” Cervone said.
It’s not just teachers and coaches who end up having regular contact with kids in a school environment, Cervone said.
“The job of school board member, like the job of child advocate lawyer, brings a kind of entree into the environments where kids are and into relationship with kids,” he said.
Cervone warned, however, that background checks can offer a false sense of security.
“Background checks only find crimes and substantiated reports. So, for example, we’ve all followed the case of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State coach, and to the best of our knowledge … one would not have found any problem because he had neither been convicted of a crime nor subject of a substantiated report,” he said. “You could have done a background check until the cows came home, and he would have passed.”
Still, Cervone said requiring a background check of anyone who intends to work with kids is a prudent first step.”