Beginning July 1, all current employees, volunteers, and independent contractors at the college will be required to undergo background checks before they can be approved to work next fall, in compliance with Act 153 of the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law. These background checks — which include a review of criminal history records obtained from the Pennsylvania State Police, a child abuse clearance obtained through the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, and a fingerprint scan run through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s database — were enacted by Pennsylvania lawmakers last December to address legal blind spots highlighted by the abuses committed by former Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky. On Tuesday, the college began facilitating on-site fingerprinting for present faculty and staff.
Prior to the installment of Act 153, the Pennsylvania CPSL provided for background checks exclusively for the employees of K-12 schools under the assumption that most employees of colleges and universities would not have significant exposure to minors to warrant a such an extensive review of criminal history. Act 153, however, applies to anyone who has “direct contact” or “care, supervision, guidance, control of, or routine interaction” with individuals under the age of 18.
The task of determining which faculty and staff fall into this category is left largely to the discretion of the institution. For example, a college or university has the liberty of deciding that a graduate school professor who exclusively teaches legal adults or a night shift janitor who works in empty buildings could be exempted from such background checks. Nevertheless, according to members of the committee established by Human Resources to facilitate the college’s compliance with Act 153, the college will be requiring full background checks for all present employees, volunteers, and independent contractors regardless of their hours or positions.
“The College admits approximately 50 minors as students each year and minors are regularly a part of our college community,” explained the committee over email. “In addition to enrolled students, external minors participate in a wide variety of programs on campus throughout the year. As a result of the recent changes to the requirements of the PA Child Protective Services law, the College requires these clearances for all employees, to ensure full legal compliance.”
According to Ben Berger, professor of political science, the college’s strict interpretation of Act 153 may stem from a feeling of fiduciary responsibility emphasized by the college’s legal advisors.
“We certainly know that schools and other places that have deep pockets can be the target of lawsuits,” Berger explained. “There will be times when something happens in the community, it doesn’t really have to involve the school, but the school is the one with deep pockets, so the school will get sued … Faculty and administrators are not experts on this, and we listen to our legal advisors, and the result may be policies that we faculty would not have proposed on our own.”
The detail of information required in the background check could be perceived as overly comprehensive or prying to those who are not accustomed to such state-run security practices. In addition to obtaining an official criminal history record from the state, employees must also obtain a certificate from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services confirming whether or not they have a “founded” or “indicated” child abuse report in their name and must provide a federal record of criminal history obtained through fingerprinting services from the FBI.
According to Shervin Malekzadeh, professor of political science, the background checks speak to a shift in the campus culture regarding issues of safety.
“Take the blue light by the train station for example,” Malekzadeh explained. “I think what we’re freaking out about are these symbols that there is a sort of shift in the culture. It doesn’t speak to pernicious behavior on the part of anybody … There is a sort of creeping encroachment that I think left and right on this campus are concerned with.”
“It’s the state of uncertainty and ambiguity and the state of not knowing that I think has got a lot of faculty and staff feeling concerned,” Berger said. “What is the purpose of this? We all want our students protected. We all want our colleagues protected. We all want an environment where there is trust. Then the question is, how does any given policy help to ensure that particular goal?”
While Public Safety officers and some other staff have had to submit criminal history records in the past, the only faculty at the college who have had to undergo background checks of any kind were those who would be participating in community-based learning classes where minors or other vulnerable populations might be involved. Berger explained that prior to the community-based learning course that he teaches at Chester High School, he and his students have always had to undergo background checks in order to work with students under the age of 18.
Malekzadeh, however, who had experience with background checks while teaching kindergarteners, believes that the robust nature of Act 153’s background checks are meaningful in both overt and subliminal ways.
“I worked with five- and six-year-olds,” Malekzadeh explained. “These are protected populations, obviously. Are 18- to 22-year-olds protected populations? Maybe, right? I mean there is sort of a mixed message here, isn’t there? We are to treat you as adults, particularly in a setting like this … but now we’re setting up this sliver, this film, this assumption of possible criminality. Whether or not it’s necessary is unclear to me, but certainly the effects are clear.”
Act 153 also mandates that all faculty and staff report any child abuse that they have reasonable cause to suspect. Still, despite the potential safety benefits that a more rigorous attention to criminal history and suspicious behavior may provide, some faculty and staff feel that such invasive policies could potentially be harmful to employee relationships.
“From a faculty perspective, it doesn’t create a culture of trust,” Berger said. “Doesn’t it make it seem like everyone here is a potential sexual predator?”
Malekzadeh agreed, explaining that while he does not believe that there is necessarily a culture of mistrust, the conversation about safety and security on campus is definitely changing.
“There’s been a very distinct shift just in the short time that I’ve been here,” explained Malekzadeh, who is in his third year at the college. “But, you know, it could be much to-do about nothing, ultimately … The bottom line is, if you get to this point and people don’t know that you have some kind of criminal past — academia is about the public production of knowledge isn’t it? You are in the public sphere. Google anyone on this campus with a PhD, and you’ll find them.”
One of the concerns that has been raised by a number of Pennsylvania colleges and universities is the cost of these new background checks. The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania — of which the college is a member — published a memorandum explaining that complying with the regulations of Act 153 might be very expensive for many colleges and universities, especially given the fact that background checks must be repeated for all employees every three years.
Marjorie Murphy, professor of history, also worried about the financial burden that Act 153 would impose upon the college.
“It is unfortunate, isn’t it, that because of a pedophile in the Athletics Department at Penn State and because of Governor Corbett, who launched a defense of his alma mater and made deals with his legislature, that we have to conform to a law that further enhances the security state and costs the college $50 per investigation times the number of faculty every three years,” Murphy said.
Both the criminal history record and the child abuse clearance certificate cost $10 each, while the fingerprinting process costs $27. Though the state does not mandate that colleges and universities pay for their employees’ background checks, the college will cover the cost of the process for all faculty and staff. With hundreds of employees requiring clearances, however, this process could cost the college more than $20,000 every three years. Furthermore, all future applicants for faculty and staff positions at the college will need to have background checks as well.
“We are committed to ensuring the safety of minors who live near or visit our campus, and we have required background checks for many positions prior to this new legislation,” said Jillian Theorgood, manager of talent acquisition and retention at the college. “In light of the evolving legal landscape, the college has extended background check requirements to all employees of the institution, at no cost to our employees.”
Given that under Act 153, all background checks for faculty and staff must be completed before December 31, 2015, the college began on-site fingerprinting with the help of local institutions this week. In compliance with state law, those faculty and staff that do not comply with the background checks within this timeframe will be charged with a misdemeanor.
“To some faculty — and I would put myself in this category — this is the incursion of the carceral state,” Berger explained. “Everyone becomes a potential criminal, and the institution is going to have a way of knowing everything about someone’s background that might not relate to their doing their job.”
Still, according to the committee, employees at the college need not worry about minor felonies and misdemeanors revealed in the background check affecting their employment at the college. The background check covers only the 18 criminal convictions prohibited under the Pennsylvania CPSL and examines only reports that have occurred within the past five years. Such convictions include homicide, stalking, and indecent exposure, and are grounds for immediate disqualification from future employment with the college. Act 153 also refers to Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device, and Cosmetic Act, calling for any individual with a controlled substance conviction from the past five years to also be prevented from employment at the college.
Due to the strict time frame noted by Act 153, the committee noted that even if an employee is found to possess a criminal record regarding any of the crimes delineated by the Pennsylvania CPSL, it will not be grounds for immediate dismissal.
“Not all child abuse reports or criminal records will lead to a college response,” the committee explained. “The PA Child Protective Services law only concerns founded reports of child abuse that have occurred within the previous five years and convictions of a specific list of crimes deemed by the State to bar work with children.”
According to the committee, an employee found to possess a child abuse report or conviction will be given the opportunity to explain the record or correct the record in complete confidentiality. Ultimately, Human Resources and the individual’s supervisor will determine whether or not the record disqualifies that person from future work with the college.
Still, some faculty feel that regardless of how the background checks are processed by the college, they remain concerning in principle.
“We are being held up and required to prove the innocence of our faculty, while the State of Pennsylvania continues to construct barriers to voting rights.” Murphy said.