Saturday, February 14, 2015

I'm invoking my First Amendment protections to comment on an issue of public concern regarding education

The Pennsylvania Assembly recently passed legislation regarding teachers and other adults in the school setting that has me profoundly troubled. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story in December regarding this change to existing state law. The Commonwealth also has a website dedicated to the law: Also prompting me to write this is the knowledge that many school districts are purchasing or considering the purchase of finger-printing machines (at significant expense . . . it seems like they cost about $10,000) so as to facilitate compliance with this law. The district for which I am an employee has made such a purchase.

There are two main parts to this legislation on which I have very different opinions. The first of these involves expanded responsibilities for school employees as mandatory reporters, a measure that seems prudent to me. I entered this profession knowing I couldn't legally turn a blind eye to suspected abuse or neglect. The state has simply clarified that reporting instances of possible abuse must be made to law enforcement agencies rather than one of my in-building superiors. That's a measure that will make kids safer.

The other main part involves teachers on a regular basis renewing their criminal background checks. Demeaning. Ineffective. A threat to liberty. It's nothing more than overreaction and animus masquerading as an attempt to protect kids.

The new requirements immediately put me and my colleagues under a presumption of guilt. Once every three years we have to re-verify that we're not criminals and haven't done anything criminal in the past three years. Please know that teachers have to submit to such checks upon coming into the profession, a measure I can't necessarily oppose. Oh, and the check must be done at cost by the teacher. So, every three years it's necessary to pay $50 to prove my good name is what it is. My good name.

All this will commence with very little benefit for protecting minors. The legislation was inspired, in part, by the Sandusky scandal, and I don't see how background checks for that perpetrator would've prevented his crimes. In fact, crimes involving predators sexually exploiting youth don't often come from someone with a record, say, for shoplifting, burglary, or assault. There's simply not much of a correlation between crimes that would leave a trail and the sexual abuse of children.

There is also a troubling threat to liberty posed by these new requirements. Do such background checks presume guilt? They might in that if I don't get that check my employer is obligated to terminate my employment. What other professions require such checks? Is there another kind of demeaning test I'll need to recurrently pass. Frankly, it would be far more effective to scrutinize what kind of websites teachers have searched for online rather than submit to these background searches. If we're setting the precedent that criminal checks and re-checks can take place, are we really that far from checks that are more invasive? We can be concerned that well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) crusaders can cloak intrusions on our liberty by claiming that laws are about protecting kids. I can't help but chuckle at the website in which the state has put up this legislation - keepkidssafe - knowing it's a shield for deflecting any criticism. For how can one be against protecting kids?

I also worry about strict, intrusive, and not-very-effective laws like this are stand-ins for more costly but effective measures to keep kids safe. Perhaps schools should have extra janitorial staff on duty outside of school hours, which would permit more eyes to catch criminal and exploitative behavior. Perhaps we should have more administrators so that teachers could be monitored more closely. If we're willing to better fund schools, schools wouldn't need to set ridiculous standards of how close one must be to school to qualify for bus transportation, thus reducing time students are vulnerable and in transition from home to schools' supervised environment. Oh, and we could have district employees drive buses rather than outsourcing companies' employees. We pinch pennies on the periphery of the school day, and thus make it more possible for crimes to occur.

If I could return for a moment to the purchase of finger-printing devices. This particular reaction of schools is troublesome. Are these purchases designed to make a buck? After all, schools can rent finger-printing services out to other entities Are these purchases designed to make it easier for schools to follow the law? Why would schools need to? After all, it's the employee who loses their job if the checks don't take place.

I dare school districts to say to Harrisburg: It's your law, you manage the paperwork.

I'm tempted to wait until December 24 to submit my materials, and urge every other educator in the state to do the same thing so as to create  bureaucratic bottleneck befitting this dumb, demeaning law.

I hope I see a school board and community offer to pay the $50 fee for each and every one of their teachers as a token acknowledgement that they trust them, don't think they're criminals, and that they understand how there's an additional burden for hard-working professionals that they can make more tolerable.

And I hope that all of us, as taxpayers in a society that values local control of public education, to look for more substantive means for protecting and honoring children than to put in place shoot-from-the-hip policies that react to crime.

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