Regular Background Checks Not Part of Williamson County Schools Policy

WCS schools

When someone is hired by Williamson County Schools (WCS) or when a parent (who will be with students) volunteers, they must submit to a background check.

But, for administrators, teachers and for parent volunteers, this is a one time check. Reporting of any additional criminal activity is, more or less, done on the honor system.

Background Checks for Volunteers

There are three tiers of volunteer at WCS. The third tier, which requires background checks, are those who will be working unsupervised with students. This background check is the same national, fingerprint procedure that school employees submit to before they are hired.

This is a “a one-time check that will clear the volunteer from that point forward.”

Each volunteer is “responsible for reporting any subsequent events.”

“Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney and staff made the decision. The Volunteer Guidelines and Procedures document is an administrative procedure. It is not a School Board policy,” states the WCS website.

Background Checks for Employees

The policy in place regarding background checks for employees, requires the same initial check as described above, but The Williamson Source could not find a specific policy requiring WCS employees to self-report any arrests, charges or convictions that occur after they are hired.

According to policy, all applicants must submit to a criminal background check and fingerprinting.

“The applicant may be employed by Williamson County Schools contingent upon a background check that does not conflict with or hinder the ability to perform in the best interest of our students and the district,” it states. Regarding future offenses, the background check policy only states that if an employee is convicted of a sexual or violent sexual offense, after the background check is conducted, they must notify Human Resources.

Employees, from administrators and teachers to classified employees (bus drivers and cafeteria workers), may be dismissed for a variety of reasons. Teachers can be dismissed for “incompetence, inefficiency, neglect of duty, unprofessional conduct, and insubordination,” with a more involved process for those with tenure. Classified employees serve at the pleasure and at the will of the superintendent and can be dismissed without cause.

Available WCS policy also does not specify if a background check is required for an employee who moves into a new position.

We reached out to Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney and WCS Communications Manager Carol Birdsong regarding the current policies, but did not hear back. However, we did speak with former WCS Superintendent Rebecca Sharber (Superintendent from 2000-2001 and 2004-2008) and she said:

“As far as I can remember, background checks were done when people were initially employed. I do not remember conducting background checks after that.”

In contrast, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) states in their policy that they may periodically conduct background checks on its employees. From its policy:

“Because of MNPS’ strong commitment to employment of individuals who pose no known risk of physical, emotional or educational harm to children, MNPS may periodically implement background checks on existing employees. If MNPS receives information that an employee has at any time engaged in conduct that caused or that in a school district setting is likely to cause physical, emotional or educational harm to children, either through their direct contact with children or otherwise, MNPS will conduct an investigation . . . Results of the investigation may lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

MNPS also requires certain volunteers to get background checks. Unlike WCS, however, volunteers must be cleared every year.

Background Checks for Referees

Last fall, it became known that TSSAA was not conducting background checks on their referees. WCS was one of two school boards in the state that did not wait for a TSSAA vote to begin conducting background checks on referees who officiate at WCS sporting events.

“I’m angered. I’m disappointed that they haven’t at this point in time. But I do know our parents in Williamson County expect that their children on the playing field are safe,” Dr. Looney said at the time.

“We do not feel comfortable with the status quo,” he said. “Therefore, WCS will not wait on the TSSAA to ensure the safety of our students.”

Now, TSSAA requires its referees to pass a background check every year. Meanwhile the Tennessee House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure this winter that made referee background and fingerprint screenings mandatory.

The Cost of Background Checks

The argument can be made that running background checks on already-checked employees would be cost-prohibitive. According to WCS, a background check costs $36.

To do a yearly check on each of its 1,717 employees in 42 schools, would cost $61,812 per year.

Which may seem like a lot, despite the district’s $223.3 million budget in 2015-16. However, to run a periodic check of every employee- every seven years, say- would cost nearly $9,000 a year, which is a a few grand less than the district set aside last year to pay for dues in case it decided to rejoin the Tennessee School Board Association. (Page 48).

It is also the same amount WCS spent last year to get background checks run on referees. WCS paid for 245 background checks for TSSAA referees, which cost the district nearly $9,000.