New Jersey Zero Tolerance School Background Checks for Board Members

school background checksNew Jersey appears to be the first state to mandate school background checks for board members.  I have been following this law closely over the past few weeks because all school board members were required to submit to the new background check law by the end of December 2011. Well, December has passed and hundreds of board members have yet to complete a criminal background check.  The NJ Department of Education is demanding that more than 350 board members step down or potentially face jail if they show up at a board meeting.

The intent of the law is right on target.  There is no reason a board member, who oversees millions of dollars in public money, should be exempted from a background screening policy.

However, the letter of the law is proving to be a bit sticky.  It seems NJ has applied a zero tolerance criminal record policy to the new law.  No school board member shall have a first or second degree conviction.  Basically, they cannot have a criminal record of any kind or at any time.

As of today, at least 12 board members have lost their positions because of criminal convictions.  And who knows, maybe some of the 350 abstainers have something to hide?

Yes, I agree that it is important for school board members to have a criminal background check.  But I also see a couple problems:

  1. The Law is Too Rigid.  What if a board member had a DUI or public intoxication conviction 20 years ago?  Your employment background screening policies are not zero tolerance policies (or they should not be if you want to stay out of court).  The EEOC has given us a model that requires a 3 step approach to using criminal records:
    1. What is the nature of the criminal record?
    2. How long ago was the crime committed?
    3. How does the criminal record impact the position?

Or quite simply, make sure the criminal record creates a business necessity for denying the position.

  1. The Law Lacks Oversight.  The law defers to local school boards to enforce the new school background checks law.  If the state is going to mandate background checks then they should provide oversight and compliance.  Don’t expect organizations to police themselves.

Now, let’s see how the rest of the country responds.  What are your thoughts?  Should we require background checks on school board members?