Screening mandate irksome for many


Published: Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2005 at 11:54 p.m.
Chris Wende has been selling books in Alachua County Public Schools for 10 years, but this fall he can't be near students without a Level 2 criminal background check.
So on Wednesday, the Amsco School Publications employee waited his turn in a crowded hallway alongside a pest control employee, some college interns and about two dozen other people. After two hours, he finally got to file some paperwork and smudge his fingers on a fingerprinting machine to ensure he has no serious crimes on his record with police and the FBI.
Under the state's Jessica Lunsford Act, which officially goes into effect today, Wende will have to go through the same screening in the 39 other Florida school districts he visits. The act, meant to protect children from sexual predators, requires screenings for anyone who has a contract with Florida school districts. School employees also undergo the screenings, but they're not required of classroom volunteers.
The act is named for a 9-year-old Homosassa girl allegedly kidnapped, raped and murdered by a sex offender who lived across the street. It was approved in the state Legislature before any education committee reviewed it.
School officials across the state have complained that not enough thought was put into how the act would be implemented. No funding was supplied for the mandate, no statewide database was established and details about the requirements remain unclear.
In the past, Alachua County schools conducted about 4,500 screenings in a nine-month period. But school officials said they conducted at least that many just this summer.
"The lady in charge of keeping our records was so overwhelmed that she resigned," said Joan Longstreth, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources.
In August alone, at least 300 vendor screenings were conducted in addition to district employee screenings. The demand increased as Sept. 1 neared, with 63 people filing through on Wednesday alone.
Overall, about 10 percent of Alachua County's screenings show "hits," which means an individual's record needs to be reviewed, said Cathy Atria, the district's personnel supervisor. It could just be a forgivable bounced check, or it could be a background that will prompt a rejection letter to the person screened and his or her employer.
Atria said the majority of people screened are approved, so they're sent an identification card they carry in their wallet whenever they do business in the schools.
The mandate is expected to cost the district well above $100,000 this year, Longstreth said. Costs include a new $16,000 fingerprinting machine; three employees and a supervisor to conduct the checks; and $61 in processing fees plus $24 to keep the records in file for the next five years.
Lamenting that money meant to go into classrooms was being soaked up by screenings, the district's School Board decided to ease some of the cost by charging $100 for each screening. It's one of the highest rates in the state, but Longstreth said it won't come close to compensating for the district's costs.
And district officials predict they'll end up paying more fees indirectly when vendors raise their rates to offset the screening costs.
The mandate isn't cheap for anyone. Gainesville Regional Utilities will have to pay $30,000 to get 300 of its employees screened. And vendors like Wende will have to pay fees in each county. The book-seller expects to pay about $3,000 altogether.
"I think this is a good idea," he said of the act, "but I wish you could do it in one place."
The need for a statewide database has been one of school officials' top criticisms of the new mandate, and according to State Sen. Evelyn Lynn's Aug. 26 letter to school superintendents, that will be considered in the next senate session. In the meantime, districts are hesitating to share their data with one another.
"No county is trying to be selfish in not sharing," Longstreth said, but each district has different standards on which backgrounds to ban and which to allow, so the comparisons are incongruent.
In Alachua County schools, anyone who committed a crime against a child, a sexual crime or a crime showing moral turpitude would be barred from coming on school grounds.
Some school districts are contracting the screening jobs out to other companies, however background checks already conducted for outside organizations are not allowed to be used by school districts.
That means people who passed screenings conducted by the Sheriff's Office and nurses who already have undergone Level 2 screenings must undergo the process again in the schools.
The screenings are expected to delay some school construction projects in the state as workers are screened, and some companies have threatened to terminate contracts with schools altogether to avoid the costs.
No such threats have come in to the Alachua County school district yet, though some construction companies complained about paying their masons $25 an hour "to sit here and wait," Longstreth said.
The district uses what was its employee break room as a hub for the fingerprinting operation.
Director of Personnel Louise Hall is one of the people working there, ensuring smooth processing for the all-day lines of people that file through from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each weekday.
"This has become a department," Hall said on Wednesday. "We were in personnel, but now we're fingerprinters."
Tiffany Pakkala can be reached at (352) 338-3111 or pakkalt@gvillesun.com

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