From: The Awareness Center's Daily NewsletterSchools scramble to screen workers who could endanger children
By DEIRDRE CONNER, Staff Writer
Naples Daily News - October 10, 2005
A new law to keep pedophiles and violent criminals away from children is giving Florida school districts a serious headache.
But the Jessica Lunsford Act also has kept at least a half-dozen workers with past homicide, kidnapping and child abuse convictions from working on the campuses of Lee and Collier County schools.
Passed last spring, the law requires school districts to fingerprint and screen contractors and vendors before allowing them to work near students. Between news of convicted kidnappers unearthed by the screening, and the logistical and financial nightmare created by the hastily passed law, the pressure has been intense for school administrators.
In Southwest Florida, officials say the law needs serious retooling. Chief among their complaints: a poorly thought-out system that until recently required contractors to pay $61 and be fingerprinted in every county they work in, and a vague standard for what crimes should bar contractors from working near students.
School districts are already required to fingerprint their own employees.
The sweeping new regulations required thousands to be screened in the last few months, including soda machine vendors, sports referees, construction workers and class-ring salespeople. Broward County's superintendent predicted some of the construction projects there might grind to a halt because of the law.
"I feel better knowing that these people aren't in schools," said Greg Adkins, Lee Schools' director of employee relations. "It's a good thing, it's just been a massive undertaking."
Just two months into the school year in Southwest Florida, the law already has kept more than 100 people from working on campus unattended while students are around.
Lee County had screened 270 applicants as of Sept. 22. Of those, 59 were flagged for past offenses, or about one in five. As of this week, Lee had screened about 320 vendors and contractors and flagged 68. But officials declined to give updated information, saying the district stopped keeping records of what crimes were causing workers to be excluded.
Among the 59 flagged in Lee, the charges included:
— one homicide
— five sexual assaults
— five assaults
— one kidnapping
— three weapons violations
— seven larcenies
— two child abandonments
— 11 burglaries
— one theft
— 18 drug violations
— four other felonies
Collier County has fingerprinted approximately 960 vendors and contractors so far, according to Peter DeBaun, Collier's director of professional practices and insurance. Of those, about 40 have been disqualified, or 4.1 percent.
Among the offenses they were disqualified for: drugs, sex crimes, assaults and batteries, crimes against children, burglary, theft, larceny and homicide. Collier school officials would not elaborate further on the nature of the crimes.
Allun Hamblett, Collier's executive director for human resources, said he noticed after comparing notes with Pinellas County that Collier is screening many more workers than most school districts.
"I think some school districts are really concentrating just on contractors. Anyone who has contracts with this school district and are going on our property, we're fingerprinting them," Hamblett said. "We are making sure that we meet the letter of the law, and that was important to us."
A few of those flagged in both Lee and Collier were allowed to work after appeals. Adkins said those who were flagged in Lee but later allowed on campus generally had drug offenses which the district considered not major enough to warrant exclusion.
In September, sponsors of the law announced that the Florida Legislature will meet in a special session to fix problematic parts of the bill.
One problem got a temporary fix last week, after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement made all fingerprints taken after Sept. 1 available to all counties so contractors don't have to be fingerprinted over and over.
But the most confusing part of the law — with a more contentious path to resolution — is the provision that requires schools to bar individuals with records of "moral turpitude." The term can include drunken driving, embezzlement and a variety of misdemeanors, although the law was aimed at sex offenders and other violent criminals who prey on children.
Adkins said Lee County has interpreted the law strictly as to what crimes should exclude vendors from working in schools, but wide variation exists statewide.
"There needs to be more of a statewide standard in terms of who can provide service and who cannot," he said. "Other (districts) are a little bit more liberal in that interpretation."
Laws such as the Jessica Lunsford Act need to be finely sharpened tools, not blunt force instruments, said Duane Dobbert, associate professor of justice studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. Dobbert, an outspoken expert on sexual predators, has held many workshops for educators locally.
"Clinically, we know once a pedophile, always a pedophile. But that doesn't mean that someone who moons out the window of a car ... is a danger," Dobbert said. "These are some of the situations where people are caught in the fallout of new legislation, and in our aggressiveness to protect people, we are also injuring some people."
Laws like the Jessica Lunsford Act — so named for the Homosassa girl who was murdered by a construction worker at her school — are not always well thought-out, Dobbert said. The law should instead look at criminals' likelihood of committing the crime again, he said.
"When we have Jessica Lunsford situation, it creates some social hysteria. We have a tendency not to rationally evaluate the circumstances," Dobbert said.
Still, all agree there are some people who should not be allowed to work in or near a school — ever.
After a few sexual predators outed by the fingerprinting crossed his desk, Hamblett said, "That's the one that really wakes you up. It makes you realize that the Jessica Lunsford Act is doing a service to the students and family in the community."
In fact, the law may not scrutinize some people enough. It requires school volunteers — who often tutor students one-on-one — to simply be checked against a national database of sex offenders.
Collier goes a step further, and has for several years fingerprinted regular volunteers.
"I was always concerned that we had people that had contact with our children without doing a thorough background check," Hamblett said.
All of Collier's principals and bus drivers have also been specially trained to watch for predators.
Ultimately, Dobbert said, legislation like this can be extremely effective in deterring sexual predators from ever coming onto school campuses in the first place.
"The sexual predator ... this man can only succeed in continuing his predatory behaviors if he is anonymous," he said. "By saying you can't get on the campus, you can't volunteer, you can't get a job unless you provide ID which is going to be checked against a national registry, this will keep people from even coming to the campus."