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District Told to Alter Background Checks

Safety: State orders L.A. schools to hire outside agency. Officials warn of delays, higher costs.

May 24, 1997|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — At a time of heightened concern about school security, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren has ordered Los Angeles school authorities to stop using an apparently highly effective program that checks the possible criminal backgrounds of new school district employees.

But district officials object that protecting school safety while complying with Lungren's order will force needless delays in the hiring of nonteaching employees. They also say it could double the cost of the district's security program--bringing it to $1 million a year.

In an April 11 letter to district officials, Lungren said that state law requires the district to hire an outside agency to conduct its background checks, even though the district's internal and fully credentialed Police Department has been performing that function for the last five years. Hiring an outside agency will be significantly more expensive, school officials say.

Last week, after statewide concern about school safety was raised by the murder of a high school senior in Rio Linda, outside Sacramento, Los Angeles school district officials took steps to prevent any delay in background checks from jeopardizing campus security. New nonteaching employees will not be allowed to work until their fingerprints are checked through a Sacramento computer--expected to take a minimum of two weeks, officials say.

"We should be able to do these background checks as quickly as possible," said Jeff Horton, president of the school board. "It's important to be sure that these people we put in these schools are OK to be around children."

But although that move allayed the district's security concerns, school officials say the resulting delays in new hires will cause disruption for a district that hires about 1,000 nonteaching employees each month.

On Friday, after calls from The Times, the issue sparked a call from Gov. Pete Wilson for legal or legislative reforms--if necessary--to restore the previous background check policy to Los Angeles schools.

"This is intolerable," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary. "If indeed there needs to be court challenges presented, then let's do those court challenges."

Los Angeles and 11 other school districts in the state have a computer system--known as the California Law Enforcement Telecommunication System--with access to a nationwide database of criminal records.

Since Lungren's letter, all 11 districts have been ordered to stop using the system for background checks. School police can still use the computer for criminal investigations.

Now, instead of being screened directly by the school district's own police, prospective workers in Los Angeles schools are screened through fingerprints mailed to the state Justice Department in Sacramento. Previously, district officials did a fingerprint check in addition to the computer check.

A computer check took about 24 hours, according to Wesley C. Mitchell, chief of the internal police department at the Los Angeles Unified School District. It also identified about 350 job applicants per year who were disqualified because of criminal histories.

By contrast, school officials say, the fingerprint check can take two or three months. Lungren's office insists the turnaround on fingerprints--not counting shipping time--can be as little as seven days.

Until last week's policy change forcing new hires to wait until their fingerprints were cleared, Lungren's order could have put Los Angeles schools in the same situation that is now being blamed for the gruesome slaying of 18-year-old Michelle Montoya, a graduating senior at Rio Linda High School.

Police have arrested a janitor with a history of violent crime who had only worked at the school for two days. The suspect was allowed to go to work while his background check was pending. The report on the background check was scheduled to be returned to the school district this past Wednesday--five days after the slaying.

The record would have shown school officials that Alex del Thomas, 34, was on parole after serving nine years in prison for manslaughter. He is also a former Los Angeles gang member with earlier convictions for armed robbery and spousal abuse.

*

Lungren's order last month is based on a disputed interpretation of a 1979 state appellate court ruling which said that employers are not allowed access to some of the information that is available from a computerized criminal records check.

The ruling was intended to protect privacy rights because criminal records include arrests and other unconfirmed reports in addition to convictions. The conviction records are appropriate for employers to obtain, the court ruled.

Lungren's office maintains that the school district's Police Department is essentially the same legal entity as the employer--the school district administration, said Rob Stutzman, spokesman for the attorney general.

Stutzman said the same interpretation would apply to the Los Angeles Police Department and the city of Los Angeles.

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