Audit criticizes Michigan education officials’ oversight of fingerprinting for school workers

Chairs are stacked on tables in a colorful classroom in hues of purple and green.
The Michigan Office of the Auditor General released an audit that criticized the state education department’s oversight of the fingerprinting process for school workers. (Olivia Sun / The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Michigan Department of Education has no procedures in place to ensure school districts aren’t employing people who’ve been convicted of criminal offenses that prohibit them from working in schools, according to a state audit released Tuesday morning.

The report from the state Office of the Auditor General criticized MDE’s oversight of the fingerprinting and background check process for contract workers. These are people who perform functions such as substitute teaching, food service, and custodial and maintenance services. 

State laws require Michigan school districts to ensure that all their employees and contract workers are fingerprinted and undergo background checks. Those laws were part of a sweeping package of legislation that went into effect in 2006 and were aimed at ensuring the safety of children in schools.

The laws bar schools from employing anyone who is on the sex offender registry. For those convicted of any felony or certain misdemeanors — such as criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree, child abuse in the third or fourth degree, and any misdemeanor involving cruelty, torture, or indecent exposure involving a child — a school board and superintendent must decide whether to employ or continue employing the person.

The audit found that some contract workers were hired without being fingerprinted, and some worked weeks, months, or even years before being fingerprinted.

The number of workers found to have been hired without the required fingerprinting was relatively small, but the audit report said “the deficiencies noted within this report would extend to all individuals regularly working in schools, regardless of their employment arrangement.”

The findings matter, the audit report said, because ineffective oversight by the state education department means there could be a significant threat to child safety “if individuals with unsuitable criminal convictions are provided direct and/or continued access to children through school employment.”

The auditors called for the department to implement procedures to help ensure that contracted staff are fingerprinted and that employment determinations are made for those with criminal convictions that require school boards and superintendents to decide on their continued employment. Department officials pushed back on that recommendation, saying in part that state law doesn’t require MDE to oversee or monitor the fingerprinting process. However, the department said that “in the interests of ensuring the safety of students,” MDE would work with the Michigan State Police to “enhance the monitoring process.” 

The total number of contract workers in Michigan schools is unknown. But the audit says a statewide survey found that 91% of the districts in Michigan used contract workers. The 41 school districts sampled for the audit employed 5,010 contract workers.

Here are some of the additional findings in the audit:

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  • An estimated 220 of 5,010 contract workers were never fingerprinted prior to employment.
  • Fingerprinting did not happen “in a timely manner” for three of 45 sampled workers. They were fingerprinted 23 days, 16 months, and 10 years, respectively, after being employed.
  • In some cases, MDE received conviction alerts about workers, but did not notify their school districts.
  • MDE routinely used outdated and incomplete employment data as part of its notification process.

Martin Ackley, spokesman for the education department, said in a statement to Chalkbeat that student safety is a priority and the MDE relies on its partners to ensure students are secure.

“School districts should not be hiring individuals whose criminal history demonstrates the potential to jeopardize the safety of children and other school staff.  We do this in partnership with the Michigan State Police to ensure the safety of all Michigan children,” Ackley said.

He said MDE will discuss the auditor recommendations with the state Center for Educational Performance and Information “to have local school districts report employment changes more frequently during a school year.”

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief of Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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