Schools lag state requirements for fingerprinting

The district says it's catching up after buying fingerprinting equipment last year.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008

LAND O'LAKES - Four years ago, the Florida Legislature required all school districts to retake the fingerprints and recheck the criminal backgrounds of all employees who have contact with students, and it gave them five years to get it done.

Florida's auditor general found that Pasco County schools lagged the recommended time line, which called for 60 percent of the reviews to be complete by mid 2007. Pasco was at 35 percent, according to a state audit released this week.

"The District should improve its procedures for timely obtaining fingerprints and background screenings for instructional and noninstructional staff that have direct contact with students," the 2006-07 financial and operational audit stated in one of 14 findings. "Absent the required fingerprinting and background screenings, there is an increased risk that staff with unsuitable backgrounds may be allowed access to students."

This issue of student safety has gained importance since the fingerprinting rules took effect. Lawmakers mandated increased background checks for school visitors in 2005 under the Jessica Lunsford Act. This year, they are considering an "Ethics in Education" bill that would require districts to do even more to vet employees and potential employees.

Renee Sedlack, Pasco's human resources director, said the district fell behind the state's suggested schedule because it did not have enough fingerprinting machines to meet the demand. In the past year, she said, the district has purchased two machines and has aggressively moved to catch up, with fingerprints being taken daily.

"By the end of this school year, we will be done with all of the fingerprinting except for four high schools," Sedlack said.

They are Hudson, Mitchell and Ridgewood high schools and Schwettman Education Center. The district's fingerprinting budget for this year was $190,000.

Also in the student safety realm, the audit stated that the school district had not by November provided site plans for several new schools - Longleaf, Seven Oaks, Oakstead and Gulf Highlands elementary schools and Long and Smith middle schools - to area law enforcement and fire departments as required by law.

District officials said they would comply with the law.

The rest of the audit findings focused essentially on paperwork and procedural problems, such as setting up methods for making sure charter schools have proper insurance or for backing up and storing computer tapes. There were no significant findings of financial problems.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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