Pittsfield schools on board with state's new background check law for employees


PITTSFIELD -- The Pittsfield school system has signed up to be among the first in the state to take part in a new fingerprinting process and national criminal database check for school employees.

A law passed last year by the state Legislature mandates that most school employees be fingerprinted, along with undergoing more detailed criminal background checks. Currently, potential school employees are checked to see if they have a criminal history in the state. The new background check system will screen for any possible criminal histories in other states.

The new State Automated Fingerprint Identification System began this month in a select group of schools in the state. A fingerprinting center has been set up in Pittsfield to handle Pittsfield schools and other districts.

Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jacob "Jake" McCandless said the district hasn’t yet begun fingerprinting employees. He is still awaiting word from the state on who will be fingerprinted and when.

The location of the fingerprinting office is on the first floor of 160 North Street in Pittsfield, at Quest Connect, a technology training center. Owner Jeff van Lingen said fingerprinting has begun, with employees from different schools stopping there to be fingerprinted. He contracts with MorphoTrust USA to do the work.

Van Lingen, whose background is in information technology, has fingerprinted about a dozen school employees, mainly from Springfield, along with some from Berkshire County schools. Unlike the ink fingerprinting historically done by police departments, the office in Pittsfield utilizes computers and a scanner. Van Lingen manually rubs the employee’s fingers over the scanner in a process that can take about 10 minutes. On Saturday, van Lingen had to retry the prints several times due to misreads while fingerprinting two teachers from Springfield.

Van Lingen said the school employees he has met so far seem "receptive" to the process, though complaints about the cost are common. The processing fees are $55 for licensed educators and $35 for other employees.

Juana Torres, a professional child care worker from Springfield, said she thought the fingerprinting was "a good idea" though she said "I had no idea what I was getting into." She had never been fingerprinted before and said "it’s a little scary." She said van Lingen did a good job. "I hope they don’t mistake my fingerprints for somebody else’s."

Over the next few weeks, more schools are expected to take part in the fingerprinting and background check system. The immediate focus will be on newly hired employees, with checks on the rest of school workers to follow, said JC Considine, chief of staff for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

McCandless said he is still awaiting more information from the state. "I’m not as convinced that we are full steam ahead on anything," McCandless said. "We’re pretty light on details."

McCandless said the school district volunteered this past summer to test out the new fingerprinting process. With Pittsfield being in close proximity to three different states, "there are lots of people (working for Pittsfield schools) who have never called Massachusetts home," McCandless said.

"Whether we are hiring somebody who is safe for our students from a national perspective is a very worthwhile and worthy step," he said. Fingerprinting and more detailed checks "gives us a better filter that the people working with our kids are the people we want working with our kids," McCandless said.

Brendan Sheran, president of the United Educators of Pittsfield, said the union is supportive of the system. He said Massachusetts is the last state in the country to require such screening of its employees.

"We want our students to have educators in front of them who don’t have harmful crimes behind them," Sheran said. He said, however, that the union has an issue with making teachers pay the processing fees.

"Having teachers pay is the bone of contention we have," Sheran said. He said he hasn’t approached the administration or the Pittsfield School Committee about the issue but plans to do so.

Other local schools scheduled to be among the first taking part in the system are the Northern Berkshire Regional Vocational Technical School and Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter School.

The law extends to all public, private and parochial schools. Gov. Deval Patrick signed the legislation in January, 2013, but it is just now taking effect. According to the legislation, all school employees who may have direct and unmonitored contact with children will have to go through the process.

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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