A Kentucky law with “good intentions” is causing serious problems for school districts around the state, just as teachers and staff prepare for the beginning of the school year.
The law requires child abuse and neglect background checks of public school personnel, student teachers, contractor and parents on school based decision making councils. A letter from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which is responsible for processing the checks, is required to verify a check has been completed.
Thousands of requests for these background checks are pouring into the Cabinet for Health and Family Services as a result of Senate Bill 236 approved by the 2017 General Assembly. The bill went into effect July 1.
The process is causing a back-to-school headaches for the agency and for many Kentucky school districts.
“Thousands of check requests have been submitted,” said Doug Hogan, spokesman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services whose Department for Community Based Services is responsible for processing the checks. “Given this volume, it currently takes about three weeks to process these checks compared to a turn-around of about one week before the new law.”
“This process includes searching the protection and permanency database for an individual’s history, if any, with the agency, and then determining what, if any, of that history can and should be released.”
Prior to the new law, criminal background checks were required for all school system employees and school volunteers. Now, the background checks include a state social worker’s substantiation of child abuse or neglect.
“Districts are in just absolute agony dealing with this new letter,” said Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. “They are really struggling. It’s really hamstringing a lot of people.”
Hogan explained that the process of the background check is time consuming because some information must be entered manually to “verify the registry file results, capture individuals who are ... pending investigation or appeal of an abuse/neglect substantiation, confirm identity, and/or query for possible name changes and multiple address changes.”
The process requires some degree of discernment in reviewing the database information and application of the administrative regulation, Hogan said. “This process adds to the already heavy workload of our administrative staff.”
In order to expedite the process, the cabinet is hiring more staff to handle the “immediate and future volumes of background check requests from schools,” he said.
Madison County Schools Human Resource Director Dustin Brumbaugh said he has ”definitely been waist deep” in the problem.
The law has “good intentions,” Brumbaugh said. “The issue we are running into is that we are hiring a lot of people” because it’s the beginning of the school year.
The law requires “contractors” have these background checks, but some people dealing with the new background check requirements say a definition of “contractors” is not specific.
“The contractor is definitely one of the most difficult ones to handle, “ Brumbaugh said, explaining that even the school’s pest control contractor has to have a letter.
“What if the normal guy who does the spraying has a sick day and there’s a substitute? That’s difficult to manage,” he said.
There’s a cost involved, too. The child abuse and neglect background checks cost $10 each and the district is paying for some of them and passing along some costs to the applicants.
So far, no employee in Madison County Schools had been fired as a result of the new checks, Brumbaugh said.
Jefferson County, Kentucky’s largest school district, has submitted 262 checks to DCBS for processing, said spokeswoman Allison Martin. To date, 65 (about 25 percent) of those checks have been returned.
“This is a concern as we get ready to start school in two weeks. We have communicated with the Kentucky Department of Education and are working to see if the process can be expedited,” Martin said..
Fayette County Public Schools Spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said before the new legal requirements, Fayette County Public Schools “worked to develop processes to ensure that we are in full compliance. The roll out has been smooth and we appreciate all of our new employees, SBDM members, substitutes, and contractors working with us to meet both the letter and spirit of the law.”
Deffendall said no one has been fired in Fayette County as a result of the checks. “We do not have specific records on all the different groups impacted to share right now,” she said.
Jessica Fletcher, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said districts were notified in late April that because of a emergency clause the superintendent has to have the cabinet’s letter from the prospective employee before hiring, even on a probationary status.
The probationary status ends with the superintendent’s receipt of the required criminal and Cabinet for Health and Services background checks, and the employee is either retained or terminated due to the job qualification requirements, she said.
But Eric Kennedy, government relations director for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said another problem with the new law is that “no one from the state level has given clear black and white guidance that you can rely on” about background checks on contractors.
“Everyone feels nervous because of the uncertainty about the guidance over who is included (as a contractor) and who is not,” said Kennedy. “If there was one thing that’s affecting the district administrators and the school boards, we are hearing it’s that uncertainly. There’s potentially thousands of checks and a backlog and a time issue.”
Under the new law, school districts may also require abuse and neglect background checks on visitors and volunteers, but it is unclear how many districts are currently doing that.
What is the legislative fix?
“This statute needs some clarification,” said Kennedy. “Perhaps some things such as the definition of contractor, maybe add some more specificity.”
Les Fugate, executive director of the Kentucky Beverage Association, confirmed that one school board official had been erroneously concerned that the people who fill beverage vending machines on school grounds need the abuse and neglect background check.
But Fugate said that ultimately his members won’t be affected because school board members are now telling them that “you are a vendor, not a contractor.”