Next year, parents of Columbia students may feel a bit more at ease about their children’s safety while at school.
Starting Jan. 1, state law will require all newly hired school employees who have contact with children to undergo a criminal background check and fingerprinting.
For Columbia schools, the law will mean extending the current hiring process for teachers and bus drivers — which includes a nationwide background check — to other school employees including counselors, secretaries, cafeteria workers and building maintenance workers.
For the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which performs the checks, the law means more work for an already backlogged system.
The Columbia Public School District currently employs more than 2,000 on-site K-12 employees, said Mary Laffey, director of human resources for the district.
The district now requires all newly hired employees to complete an open records check, which is a statewide search, Laffey said.
The school district averages about 100 (statewide) open records checks a month, Laffey said. The new law will not increase the number of checks but will expand the scope of the checks to the entire nation.
“The importance of the law is that it’s saying that all school employees have to undergo the fingerprint process,” Laffey said. “This law is meant to catch all other employees coming into the school district. It’s an FBI process, so it will catch all records in the U.S.”
Capt. Tim McGrail, director of criminal records and identification for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the department has been anticipating the increase in requests as a result of the new law.
“We were aware of it,” McGrail said. “We’ve got additional personnel, but that was based on our backlog from previous years.”
The number of criminal background checks has already risen as a result of revamped foster care legislation and concealed carry weapon permits.
He estimated the department will handle about 30,000 to 40,000 more background-check requests per year as a result of the new law.
Laffey said one concern for the school district is the eight- to 10-week backlog to process a background check request.
“(It) is unrealistic for us as an employer to wait eight to 10 weeks to hire for a job,” Laffey said. “In the meantime, the Columbia public school district will continue to do an open records check with a 24-hour turnaround time. The state department understands that we’ve got to put people in positions, so our hiring will be contingent on the fingerprint check.”
The school district currently covers the cost for the statewide open records checks, which is $6.50 per check, Laffey said. Fingerprinting costs $5, and an FBI criminal background check costs $38. The district hasn’t yet made a decision on who will cover the additional $43 cost per person.
McGrail said the highway patrol is working to speed up the turnaround time for background checks.
The department has been approved to hire 13 new employees, and seven of the positions have been filled so far. It takes an average of one year to train a fingerprint technician, he said.
The department is also going to start processing background checks 24-hours a day to accommodate limited work space, McGrail said.
“The state is looking into getting an account with a third party to do the fingerprint application process with live scanning devices,” McGrail said. “The prints will come to us electronically, which will allow us to process them in a more efficient manner.”
“Ideally, we’d like to have a turnaround time of five to 10 business days, but that’s going to take some time,” McGrail said.
Despite the waiting period and the increased cost, many feel the new law is a good one and is necessary.
“Obviously, you want to make sure that people who work around children are qualified and that there’s no criminal history,” said Rep. Mark Wright, R-Springfield, who worked on the House portion of the bill. “The problem is you have pedophiles who try to get close access to children, and if you don’t have background checks, they have closer access.”
“It doesn’t surprise me. I think it’s a great idea,” said Brenda Walker, PTA president at Russell Boulevard Elementary School. “If they’re smart enough to do background checks in the state, it doesn’t make sense not to do them elsewhere.”
Laffey said, “I think we have to do everything we possibly can to ensure the safety of students, and really the safety of our own employees.”