Saturday January 12, 2013

BOSTON -- Teachers at public and private schools, workers at child care centers and school bus drivers are among those who will soon be required to submit fingerprints for criminal background checks under a new Massachusetts law.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the wide-reaching measure saying it closes a loophole in existing state law and will help protect children.

Under the new law, the fingerprints will be submitted to the state police for a state criminal history check and also forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a national background check. Under the previous law, fingerprints were not required and only a state check was conducted.

All newly hired teachers, bus drivers and others working at schools will be required to undergo the background checks before the start of the next school year.

Current employees must undergo the checks before the 2016-2017 school year.

Licensed family child care providers, their household members age 15 or older, and individuals regularly on the premises of a family child care home will also be subject to the checks, as will subcontractors commissioned to perform work on school grounds.

Pittsfield School Committee Chairman Alfred E. "Alf" Barbalunga said Friday the subject of fingerprinting school employees hasn’t been brought up to the committee, but the new law "may have been under the radar."

United Educators of Pittsfield negotiators did not raise concerns during recent contract talks, he said.

Barbalunga added that the school does background checks on all employees and volunteers when they are hired for possible criminal activity in Massachusetts, and there is another check when employees are promoted.

The law "would add a whole new layer of checks," he said, and would likely cover criminal activity in other states. "I would support it, for sure," he said.

Union officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

Previously, schools were only allowed to conduct background checks for crimes committed inside Massachusetts using the state’s name-based Criminal Offender Record Information system. Those system checks did not include any criminal history record information for crimes committed outside the state.

"We have historically checked the background of employees in schools and day care centers based on information that we can get from Massachusetts, but people move around so we ought to be able to get that information from elsewhere," Patrick said Friday in announcing the new law he signed Thursday.

The governor’s office said that the law will not cost the state or school districts, that the fees associated with the fingerprint checks will be the responsibility of the person being fingerprinted, and that the national criminal checks are done on a one-time basis.

The information gleaned from the background checks can be used by investigators from the Department of Early Education and Care and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education looking into allegations of misconduct by teachers.

The fingerprint background checks would also apply to everyone seeking to adopt children or become foster parents as well as all other employees of school departments who may have direct, unmonitored contact with children.

State Rep. Alice Peisch, who pushed for the changes, said Massachusetts will "no longer lag behind" other states which have already adopted the national fingerprint background check.

State education officials also hailed the law, saying it should provide more peace of mind for parents and students.

"Every child in Massachusetts should be able to go to school knowing that they have a safe and secure space to learn and grow," said Education Secretary Paul Reville.

Final approval of the measure came just weeks after authorities announced an indictment of a Wakefield man charged with sexually assaulting more than a dozen children.

John Burbine is accused of assaulting the children -- including one just 8 days old -- while working at his wife’s unlicensed day care business. He’s currently being held without bail after pleading not guilty.

The case has prompted calls for additional laws designed to protect children.

Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, the Republican leader in the Massachusetts Senate, has said he plans to file legislation soon that would, among other things, improve communication between lawmakers, prosecutors and the state Sex Offender Registry Board.

Investigators said Burbine was registered as a Level 1 sex offender in 1989, a classification given those least likely to reoffend.

Tarr says subsequent investigations of Burbine over the years should have led him to be reclassified to a higher level.