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Tougher vetting eyed for teachers

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 05. 2014 11:17PM

Requiring state police to inform a school district of only certain major crimes committed by a job applicant distinguishes New Hampshire's vetting policy from those in neighboring states.

At least two New Hampshire lawmakers say changes may need to be made to state statute.

New Hampshire's system is facing scrutiny after the revelation that a Claremont teacher recently accused of sexual conduct with a student had a prior conviction.

Christopher LeBlanc, 29, was arrested last month and charged with four counts of felonious sexual assault stemming from an alleged relationship with a 14-year-old student. Claremont officials were unaware when LeBlanc was hired last year that he had pleaded guilty in 2006 to one count of conspiracy to transmit stolen goods, for which he paid a $100 fine.

Like all prospective school employees and volunteers in the state who would have unsupervised contact with minors, LeBlanc was subject to a criminal records check by the state police, which involves running the applicant's fingerprints through state and federal databases.

However, in a policy that distinguishes the state from its New England neighbors, the state police are only required to inform the district of a narrow set of crimes: murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, child pornography and child abuse. The categories are spelled out in Section 5 of records check statute RSA 189:13-a. A school is barred from hiring a person convicted of such crimes.

A district can be informed of other felonies on a job applicant's record, but it must request that additional information in writing to the state police.

Today, the vast majority of school districts request to be informed of all felonies in applicants' records, according to Jeff Kellett, the chief administrator of the state police Criminal Records Unit. He said 80 of the state's 101 school administrative units request to be notified of all felonies, and 32 private schools do so. When the state first adopted the mandatory record check for school employees 15 years ago, only a handful of districts sought the additional felony information. (Kellett said he couldn't release the names of school districts that request all felony information because of the confidentiality rules of his office.)

Still, compared with some states, New Hampshire's law leaves school officials with relatively sparse information. The state police are barred from informing a district of any lesser non-felony charges against an applicant that fall outside the Section 5 crimes. And the statute bars the police from releasing the records themselves; the agency can only tell district officials that a felony conviction turned up; it falls to the district to make further inquiries.

"We can only follow what the law requires us to do," Kellet said. "That doesn't prevent the hiring agency from doing something beyond that."

In Massachusetts, by contrast, the state police provide local school officials with the entire criminal file, known as Criminal History Record Information (CHRI). The records, according to the Massachusetts law, are to include any "arrest, detention, complaint, indictment, information or other formal criminal charge relating to an identifiable person ... as well as the disposition of any charges."

In Maine, the background check is handled by the state Education Commissioner's Office, which makes use of an applicant's entire criminal record file in weighing whether to grant a teacher certification.

In Vermont, school districts are entitled to criminal conviction records of prospective employees, including student teachers, temporary employees and anyone under contract to an independent school or school district who may have unsupervised contact with children, according to the Vermont Criminal Information Center at the state Department of Public Safety.

Under Vermont state law, that includes convictions recorded in other states and by the FBI.

New Hampshire Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she needed to further investigate the Claremont case, but she said it was concerning.

"I just think the law needs to be able to cover him if it doesn't cover him now," she said. Pantelakos added, "It's really disgusting to me that people don't come forth and say what they've done in the past. It is sad, and it puts a lot of people in a bad position, and it puts our children in danger."

State Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, chairman of the Senate Health, Education and Human Services Committee, said legislative changes might be in order in light of the Claremont case.

"I think it's well worth looking into and taking a study on, to look at how this could impact individual employers, and in the case of schools, the safety of children," she said.

The Legislature can't consider new bills until January, when a new session begins.

It's not clear how the state's largest school district, Manchester, handles background checks for prospective teachers and other employees. District officials said they followed the state law, but did not respond specifically to the question of whether they sought criminal information beyond what the New Hampshire State Police is required to furnish.

There have been several arrests in recent years of educators in the Queen City. In 2012, a special education teacher was indicted on charges of abusing students on three occasions, and last month, an art teacher was indicted for allegedly allowing her home to be used by her boyfriend to sell drugs.

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