PORTLAND (AP) – Education officials are reviewing how they conduct criminal background checks on school employees following the discovery that a woman convicted of assaulting a child worked in South Portland schools.

School superintendents say they are tightening rules about background checks and making sure nobody has avoided having their criminal histories examined as required by state law.

“I think after the South Portland circumstance, more superintendents will do that,” said Paul Malinski, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association.

The new focus on background checks is being spurred by Deborah Wolfenden, who worked as a special education consultant in South Portland schools until her contract was terminated this month.

Wolfenden’s foster son, Ricky LeTourneau, died in 1990 after Wolfenden pushed him into his bedroom for urinating on the floor.

He suffered a concussion and choked on his vomit.

Wolfenden was acquitted of manslaughter and aggravated assault, but was sentenced to a year in prison for assault because of evidence that she had spanked Ricky excessively and raked his genital area with her nails.

South Portland’s failure to fingerprint Wolfenden not only violated a 7-year-old state law that requires fingerprinting of all school employees and contracted workers, it also hid her conviction, allowing her to work on and off in the district for three years.

In response, some school districts plan to tighten their background check procedures. Others say their requirements already are more strict than state law requires.

William Shuttleworth, superintendent of School Union 47, said he is tightening his district’s already strict rules on background checks.

The district, which includes Woolwich and Phippsburg, will not allow anyone to work for the schools until a background check is complete.

Before the South Portland incident, the district simply followed state law, which allows a teacher to start work while the check is being processed.

Many local districts already have rules that are stricter than state law.

Scarborough and South Portland will allow only cab drivers who have passed background checks to transport students, while School Administrative District 48 requires parent volunteers to go through a state background check.

“I feel a whole lot more comfortable if I know who is with my kids,” said William Braun, superintendent for SAD 48, which includes Newport and Hartland. State Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said the incident exposes an area where the law could be more strictly enforced.

The state now relies on superintendents to provide an annual list of contracted employees with the understanding that each has been fingerprinted and approved to work in schools. But the state has no way of ensuring that the list from each district is complete or accurate.

Gendron says she wants to make sure that each district is reporting every contract it awards.

Starting this summer, state auditors will check whether district spending on contracts matches the actual number of contracted employees. This cross-referencing will be added to state reviews of special education departments, where most contracted employees work.

This new review will raise the level of scrutiny closer to that given regular employees, who make up roughly 99 percent of school workers.

A database of regular employees, ranging from teachers to bus drivers and cafeteria workers, allows the state to monitor their records and detect any problems, Gendron said.



Information from: Portland Press Herald, http://www.pressherald.com

AP-ES-04-17-05 1315EDT


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