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Schools taking on Lunsford screenings

The district will hire an employee to handle the fingerprinting of everyone who must comply with the new law, including food vendors, sports officials and construction workers.

Published September 8, 2005

BROOKSVILLE - A week after the Sept. 1 deadline to begin compliance with the Jessica Lunsford Act, Hernando County school officials continue to struggle to complete the required background checks.

Officials say there is a statewide backlog of checks because of the large number of employees of contract vendors who must be fingerprinted and checked as the new program gets under way.

"We've been running about 35 background checks per day, but the FBI has been slow returning results," said Barry Crowley, safety and security director for Hernando County schools. "There are vendors who have been waiting two weeks to get their results."

School officials have been asked to escort employees of vendors who have not received results on their checks when students are on campus. Crowley said the delays have not hindered any of the vendors' work or deliveries.

The district began screening vendors and their employees in mid August. So far, the screenings have found seven people with criminal backgrounds; they can no longer work on campuses. None of their histories included sex offenses.

Three employees of Labor Finders who were registered sex offenders and doing cleaning work at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics were discovered in early August, before the start of the fingerprinting program.

Tuesday night, the School Board approved the new state-mandated policy and okayed the hiring of someone to do the background checks.

The Jessica Lunsford Act, approved this year by the Florida Legislature, requires the state's 67 school districts to fingerprint and screen every contracted vendor employee who sets foot onto campuses while students are present.

The act was passed after the assault and murder of Citrus County third-grader Jessica Lunsford last winter. The man accused of killing Lunsford had worked at a construction site at her elementary school in Homosassa.

Among those who must be fingerprinted are food vendors, sports officials, construction workers, photographers and senior ring and yearbook vendors.

Crowley estimated that 6,000 to 8,000 people would have to go through the screening process in Hernando by the end of the year.

The Lunsford Act does not require school volunteers, chaperones and mentors to complete background checks, but the Hernando school district is considering requiring checks on all of them as well. Currently, the district only makes sure that volunteers are not registered sex offenders.

Money is an issue, however.

"We're asking the district to consider paying for some volunteers, especially overnight chaperones and those who work one on one with students," Crowley said.

The cost for one fingerprinting is $61. Because the district does not have funding to cover the cost of screenings, the vendor employees must pay the fee themselves.

With the School Board's approval Tuesday night, Crowley will now advertise for an employee to handle the fingerprinting of everyone who must comply with the new law. The employee's salary will come out of the $61 fee - $5 of which goes to the district.

"I think we're being conservative by hiring only one employee to do this job," Crowley said. "Sumter County hired four new employees. I don't foresee the need for this job to go away for a very long time."

Despite the frustrations that have come with implementing the policy, Crowley praised the Lunsford Act.

"It was an excellent idea to put this law into place," he said. "Yes, it is an inconvenience, but the benefits of this far outweigh the disadvantages."

[Last modified September 8, 2005, 01:49:23]

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