The Liberty County School System’s policy for background checks officially changed two weeks ago after some applicants with criminal pasts had been considered and approved for hire within the system.
When questions from the Courier regarding new hires prompted a review of applications that recently had been approved but later were found to be questionable, LCSS Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer said she knew something had to be done about the process. There was no specific rule on the books about hiring people with records.
"Applications are handled through our personnel office. Interviews are usually conducted by the immediate hiring supervisor," Scherer said. "What led to the change was that we had some people employed who had background checks that I’m not comfortable with. In at least one case, they were already employed and in a couple of other cases, they had been approved by the board for employment but had not actually started to work yet."
The school system receives more than 5,000 applications a year, and human resources director Delilah Norris said she goes through hundreds for final approval. After she reportedly approved for hire individuals who had had several previous run-ins with the law, Norris said, "The process that was in place was followed."
By law, the Liberty County School System must do background checks on any candidates who are qualified for a position within the system. The applicant is responsible for taking the application to the Hinesville Police Department and paying the $60 fee. The applications are to be picked up by Norris once the check is completed.
Although Scherer admits that two applicants recently were terminated after they had been hired despite their records, she also said the problem comes down to people falsifying information on applications, something that happens on occasion. The superintendent said she understands that people make mistakes, and some mistakes can be forgiven but not frequent misdemeanors or felonies.
"Part of people being employed is sort of situational. What you may tolerate on one person’s background check is not tolerated in another case," the superintendent said.
"For example, you may let somebody who has a DUI work in a position, for example, as a custodian where they don’t drive a county vehicle, where you would never ever let them drive a school bus. But this, which led to the change, we got some people who had multiple misdemeanors and felony charges and a substantial criminal background … you just do not feel comfortable having them around children at all."
According to Norris and Scherer, the HPD uses Live Scan, which is a fingerprinting system to check out applicants’ backgrounds.
"Upon receipt of Live Scan results, the report is first reviewed for felony charges and habitual offenders, then for the following: crimes against and/or involving children; crimes of a sexual nature; providing alcohol to a minor/underage; contributing to the delinquency of a minor; violent crimes; weapons charges; drug charges, i.e., more than one ounce, cocaine, with intent to manufacture or distribute," Norris said.
"Live Scans are red-dotted if there are felony charges or serious charges. I am available to review the contents of the Live Scan with them, and individuals are afforded the opportunity to provide documentation that indicates charges have been pleaded down and/or dismissed, the disposition of charges and other relevant information."
Even though Norris said procedures were followed, Scherer decided that taking the approvals into her own hands would be the only way to ensure that the children are protected.
"I guess my first reaction was wondering why this had happened and her philosophy of hiring was not consistent with mine," Scherer said of learning that some applicants were hired despite their backgrounds. "It’s just an error in judgment. I mean, they were aware of it; they made a judgment call that I’m not comfortable with."
And to make sure there are no other overlooked school-system employees with troublesome backgrounds, Scherer now is going through every single application from the past five years. She said she is about a quarter of the way through nearly 2,000 files and, luckily, there have been no other surprises. In addition, the superintendent said, current employees must undergo a background check every five years.
"Prior to the change in policy where I’m going to now look at them, the only person who saw a background check was the director of personnel. That’s highly confidential stuff," Scherer said of the files that only two people are allowed to look through.
And because of the situation, Scherer said she won’t trust anyone but herself to go through the background checks that come in each week.
"As far as reviewing the background checks, I won’t delegate that to anyone else. Fortunately, most people have no background record. So it comes in, it’s real easy and says ‘no record found,’ and so those are the easy ones," Scherer said. "The ones who do have a criminal background, then I will sort through it and make the decision as to whether or not I think they should be hired."