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A Times Editorial

Bates case reveals dangerous flaws in system

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

Crystal River police should have spiked Don Bates' arrest records from their computer files when Bates managed to get his record expunged by a court, the Florida Attorney General's office said this week.

Of course, had the police done so, voters here might never have known that a man seeking one of the top education positions in Citrus County, a seat on the School Board, had been busted in 1994 for indecent exposure. He admitted the arrest only when the Citrus Times obtained the records and asked him about the incident.

Crystal River police Chief Jim Farley believed at the time that releasing the information, in response to a Times request, might have been a mistake. But he also felt that the statute governing such matters was unclear, so he asked the Attorney General's Office for an opinion.

Turns out, there is cover under the law for the criminal, who can hide his unsavory past and pretend that the offense had never happened.

As for the public, in this case voters who might have unwittingly elected a sex offender to the School Board, the law offers no such protections.

Where are the safeguards to ensure that someone with a sex offense on his record is not allowed to get a job where he would interact regularly with children?

They exist, but only for the hired hands in the school district. Not for the elected bosses.

If Bates had applied to work as a bus driver, teacher, cafeteria aide or any other position in the district, he would have had to reveal his arrest, even though it had been expunged.

That requirement in state law makes sense. The public trusts that school districts are not putting children in the care of criminals, including sex offenders.

The district has to have access to all relevant information in order to screen potential employees.

Yet, School Board members, arguably the five most important people in the school system, can keep expunged criminal pasts secret.

Farley wonders why the standards are different for them. It's a fair question.

School Board members, technically, are not considered employees of the school district, and therefore are exempt from the disclosure requirement.

It's difficult to understand how that is arrived at, considering board members are paid through the district, work in district facilities and set policy for all district employees.

The district does fingerprint board members for criminal records checks, but only after they take office. Board candidates are not screened by the district. (The Times routinely runs criminal background checks on all candidates for elective office.)

Teachers, administrators, bus drivers, all other rank-and-file workers -- including volunteers -- are checked out before they are hired, however. This includes not just criminal records checks but drug tests as well.

In many cases, the prospective employees have to pay for the tests, with no guarantee they will be hired.

For School Board hopefuls, however, it's the honor system.

You might wonder if this is fair.

You might also ask why sex offenses are eligible for expungement in the first place.

Astute observers might also note that the district has zero tolerance for bad behavior by its students, yet a certain amount of leniency for its adults.

In the days following disclosure of Bates' past, some in the community blamed the Police Department for revealing the information. That complaint misses the point. Yes, there were misdeeds committed, but the police were not the perpetrators.

At a time when the public is demanding increased accountability from its leaders, from the halls of government to corporate boardrooms, there should be no room to hide illicit actions.

The Legislature has left some dangerous loopholes in its statutes. It's high time that they were expunged.

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