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"Agency to investigate why district failed to report criminal records"
By Katie Fairbank and Tawnell D. Hobbs, The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Texas Education Agency officials said Tuesday they will send investigators to the Dallas school district to find out why it failed to report educators with criminal records to the state.

Meanwhile, the district plans to investigate employees who lied about their criminal histories on employee applications.

The inquiries follow a Dallas Morning News report in November that uncovered flaws in the Dallas Independent School District's handling of employees with criminal histories.

It also showed that the district was not reporting all educators with criminal histories to the state certification office within seven days, as required by law.

The district did send the state agency a list of at least 23 teachers and five teaching assistants with criminal records that the newspaper had compiled during its investigation.

All had gone through a district review to determine whether they should be hired or keep their jobs. The crimes for which they were convicted or received deferred adjudication included prostitution, indecent exposure and cocaine possession.

"We will be doing an investigation looking into the cases that have now been reported that were not originally reported to us," Debbie Ratcliffe, TEA communications director, said Tuesday. "If we find intentional wrongdoing that involves certified educators, then we could impose sanctions."

Sanctions can range from a letter of reprimand to the most severe – certificate revocation for a superintendent or director who failed to send the reports.

DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said the district has been reporting district employees with criminal histories but not as quickly as it should. He said he is working to improve the process.

Grouping reports

DISD spokesman Celso Martinez said the district was waiting to turn in educators in groups, instead of individually. He said officials would now report names as they learn about crimes.

Some people who were not reported had committed crimes years ago, such as a teacher who received deferred adjudication probation in 2000 for indecent exposure and a teacher assistant who received deferred adjudication probation in 2002 for endangering a child. Deferred adjudication allows a judge to suspend, then dismiss, a finding of guilt after the person successfully completes probation.

Mr. Martinez says DISD welcomes the TEA's investigation.

"We think that we put into place those safeguards that will give us the opportunity to be in full compliance, so we're obviously going to cooperate fully," he said. "I think they're going to find that the new processes ... will suffice for them."

He said: "The issue of timeliness of reporting is critical. We have not been doing a good job in that."

'Very cooperative'

Ms. Ratcliffe said the TEA expects a smooth working relationship with DISD.

"In recent weeks, Dallas has been very cooperative about notifying us about employees that have been arrested or have criminal histories, so we're sure they'll be cooperative about these issues," she said.

The state agency has notified the district to expect the investigators after the holidays. More detail will come later, Ms. Ratcliffe said.

The school district's own review will check employment applications of people with known criminal histories to determine whether they were truthful about their record, said Mr. Martinez.

Employees found to have lied will be put through an administrative review. Repercussions could range from a letter of reprimand to termination.

"If it was a blatant lie, obviously that is going to be in a different category," Mr. Martinez said, adding that people with criminal histories should now report them as quickly as possible.

"The longer you wait, the worse it is," he said.

In the future, applicants who fail to reveal crimes that turn up in the district's routine pre-employment background check will automatically be rejected, he said.

The News' investigation also found that the district did not discover some criminal offenses, and that some employees were allowed to keep their jobs even though they failed to notify the district after being arrested for a serious crime.

Under DISD policy, employees who are arrested or convicted or who receive deferred adjudication for any felony or any offense involving moral turpitude must report the crime in writing to the superintendent within three workdays. Moral turpitude offenses include prostitution, public lewdness, swindling and theft over $500.

Dr. Hinojosa said he plans to have more supervision over the district's review process in the future. He also said he will personally determine whether employees with crimes serious enough to require a district review can keep their jobs. Before, approval from a panel of district officials was enough.

"Anybody that gets approval has to come through me," Dr. Hinojosa said.

He doesn't expect many cases to come across his desk.

At least 141 employees and applicants with criminal histories have won appeals to be hired or keep their jobs since 2000, The News found in November. Eighty-five still worked for DISD.

Most had committed offenses like driving while intoxicated, misdemeanor theft, fraud and offenses related to drugs. But some also had aggravated assault, prostitution, public lewdness and burglary on their records.

The review process may change more after the district hires a new head of human resources, Dr. Hinojosa said.

Troy Coleman, the associate superintendent of the department, resigned last week. District trustees cited several concerns about his department, including the problems with criminal background checks found by The News.