Jennifer Friedlin - Special To The Jewish Week
Jewish Week (NY) - June 9, 2006
The New York State Legislature is considering a bill that would permit private schools to conduct background checks on prospective employees, giving yeshivas, Catholic schools and other private institutions an opportunity to weed out convicted sex offenders before they are hired.
The bill is similar to legislation that was enacted in 2000, which now requires all the state’s public schools to fingerprint job candidates.
“This bill mirrors the law for public schools, which has proven effective,” said Thomas Dunham, a spokesman for Sen. Dean Skelos (R- Rockville Centre), one of the bill’s sponsors.
But unlike the law affecting public schools, the private schools law would allow institutions to opt out of running checks on prospective teachers, janitors and other school employees.
The call for legislation to keep sex offenders out of private schools comes in the wake of recent allegations that a yeshiva in Flatbush, Brooklyn, harbored a sex offender for decades. The allegations and a subsequent lawsuit against Rabbi Yehuda Kolko of Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Temimah have generated a heated debate within the Jewish community about how the leadership can better protect Jewish students.
If the bill is passed, New York’s private schools would be allowed to run checks on prospective employees through the FBI’s national criminal background check system, allowing employers to learn whether a job candidate has ever been convicted of sexual abuse, or any other crime, anywhere in the nation.
In addition, legislators are currently working to amend the bill so that the new law, like the 2000 law concerning public schools, would require private schools to report allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities.
Members of the Senate and Assembly say that the bill could come up for a vote sometime before the legislative session ends later this month.
Supporters say this bill, while not identical to the public schools measure, is a step toward leveling the playing field between New York’s public schools and the private institutions that serve about 500,000 children.
“It is a serious concern that because all public schools — and many other employment sectors — are fingerprinting, rejected job applicants with serious criminal records may find employment in the nonpublic schools,” said Elliot Pasik, an Orthodox attorney from Long Beach, who spearheaded the effort to get the legislation passed.
Pasik said he first became aware of the need for background-check legislation several years ago, when he was handling a case in which a teacher’s aide in a private school molested a child while escorting him to the bathroom. Upon the aide’s arrest, it was discovered that he had previously been convicted of a similar crime. After Pasik realized a background check would have prevented the attack, his next thought was, “What are they doing in my children’s yeshivas?” he said.
As he researched the issue, Pasik uncovered a number of similar cases throughout the country in which sex offenders with criminal histories were able to land jobs in private schools, a phenomenon known as “passing the trash.” Meanwhile, few laws existed on the books to identify abusers.
Until now, private schools in New York that wanted to do background checks were hamstrung by a “no fingerprinting” law, that made it illegal to fingerprint employees. To get around the law, some schools have conducted name-based checks through private companies. Critics, however, say that these checks are easily susceptible to fraud. In addition, name-based checks generally only reveal felonies, while misdemeanors, including some sex abuse offenses, are omitted.
So far, backing for the bill, which was introduced in the Assembly by Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), has been described as strong, although some legislators have yet to commit their support.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is currently reviewing the legislation, but his chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, said he favors some type of legislation to make private schools safer.
“Speaker Silver is very interested in this piece of legislation since it appears it would lead to increased security in yeshivot and other private schools,” Rapfogel said.
Among the religious groups that have come out in favor of the legislation are Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union and its Rabbinical Council of America.
“This legislation gives nonpublic schools a powerful legal tool to do all they can to protect the children entrusted to them by parents,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
The New York State Catholic Conference, which was among the groups representing parochial schools that asked not to be included in the 2000 legislation, has not yet taken a position on the new bill. But Dennis Proust, director of communications for the conference, said his organization would not oppose the bill.
Currently, about 10 states require private schools to do background checks of their employees. But even in cases where such laws exist, experts say compliance can be spotty. In addition, given that many sexual offenders are never convicted, the laws are not necessarily capable of guaranteeing that abusers will be kept out of the schools.
“Most sexual abusers who become teachers are not in the system, so background checks [in the ways that they are usually done] probably won’t identify sexual predators,” Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of foundations, leadership and policy studies at Hofstra University, wrote in an e-mail.
“That is not to say that background checks don’t have any usefulness,” Shakeshaft said.
And, experts note that, given the fact that sex offenses account for the vast majority of license revocations and denials in the public school system, more protocols for identifying and reporting abusers could help to keep offenders out of New York’s schools, public or private. Of the 113 teaching licenses New York State revoked or denied in the five years through August 2005, 77 involved sex offenses.