WMBF INVESTIGATES: Arrests, felonies don’t disqualify teachers from working in S.C. classrooms

WMBF INVESTIGATES: Arrests, felonies don’t disqualify teachers from working in S.C. classrooms

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WMBF) - To become a teacher in South Carolina, a person needs to have a college degree and pass a test.

However, one thing applicants don’t need is a spotless background check.

Teachers who have prior arrests and even felony convictions can be certified and hired.

A Georgetown County School District teacher was convicted of breach of trust with fraudulent intent for taking more than $27,000 in forged and unauthorized checks while working at the Ferguson Law Firm between 1990 and 1999, according to court documents. Records reveal the individual admitted to using the checks for personal business.

The individual pled guilty in 2002 and was sentenced to an eight-year jail sentence, which was suspended and reduced to five years’ probation. They also had to pay $30,000 in restitution.

Breach of trust with fraudulent intent charges that involve more than $2,000 are considered a felony in South Carolina.

Although the individual was convicted of the felony in 2002, WMBF obtained documents from the State Board of Education that reveal neither the district nor the state knew about the charge until 2004.

Once the conviction was discovered, the teacher resigned and their certification was voluntarily suspended.

Teachers in the state can reapply for their certification and in this case the certification was allowed to be reinstated two years later.

Currently, the teacher is working with the Georgetown County School District and their certification is active until 2024.

However, WMBF received documents from just this year that reveal the S.C. Board of Education was again left in the dark about the extent of the same teacher’s offenses.

The same educator recieved a ticket for selling alcohol to a minor while working as a bartender in 2012.

This offense was not disclosed to the state’s Department of Education until this year, seven years later, according to a letter sent by the Department of Education to the teacher.

The letter sent on June 25, 2019 stated, “While your conduct was unprofessional and arguably falls within the realm of just cause for disciplinary action of your educator certificate, the SCDE Certification Review Committee has made a determination that no action will be taken against your educator certificate at this time.”

The letter said the department will pursue an investigation for possible disciplinary action, “however, barring any new evidence or facts, the SCDE considers this matter closed.”

This determination comes even though one of the department’s criteria for reviewing certification is, “failure to report or attempt to conceal misconduct.”

While this is only one case, it reveals two instances when a teacher’s offenses were able to go undetected for years.

WMBF Investigates decided to look into what the qualifications are to become a teacher in the state and where districts draw the line when it comes to individuals with criminal records.

The process of getting a teacher license in South Carolina

All teachers must undergo a criminal background check conducted by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) before they are certified and again before they are hired.

Under South Carolina law, the South Carolina School Board can permanently revoke and refuse to issue a certification if an applicant is guilty of a violent crime, certain offenses related to obscenity, material harmful to minors, child exploitation, and child prostitution.

However, if the background check finds criminal activity other than those offenses, the applicant is not automatically disqualified from teaching in the state. Instead, a South Carolina Department of Education committee will determine if the application can be cleared.

The committee has the power to approve certification in the following circumstances:

  • Arrests where criminal charges were dropped or dismissed
  • One or two DUI incidents that are 3 years or older
  • A single misdemeanor
  • Multiple misdemeanors that are all 3 years or older
    • This cannot include cases of violence, sexual misconduct, breach of public trust and minors
  • Convictions where a full pardon has been granted

If there is a felony conviction on the applicant’s record, the board can assign a committee and the applicant can make a case before the committee.

A variety of factors are considered by the board before issuing a certification, including: age at the time of arrest; patterns of misconduct; failure to report misconduct; and successful completion of sentence or probation.

WMBF discovered there is no “hard and fast” rule about which crimes disqualify a person from receiving a certification.

A spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Education declined an on-camera interview explaining the process and said no one from the board felt comfortable speaking about the policy.

In an email, the spokesperson said every application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Teachers do need to renew their licenses every so often, but the department’s spokesperson said, “At this time, no additional background checks are required at the time of renewal if the certificate is in good standing.”

The spokesperson did not answer whether the process is effective in certifying qualified teachers, nor a question on if parents should trust the board’s decision for reviewing applicants with criminal records.

District’s role in background checking

Before hiring individuals, school districts across the state are also required by law to conduct criminal background checks and check the National Sex Offender Registry.

Alan Walters, the executive director of safety and risk management for the Georgetown County School District, said the district runs background checks for teachers, volunteers, bus drivers, construction workers, and support personnel.

The district does not keep track of how many convicted felons are working for the district, according to Walters.

Walters explained the mandated SLED background check for teachers finds arrests and convictions in South Carolina, but the district also uses NCIC to find federal records outside the state.

“If it’s someone at a higher position that handles funds, we would probably do an additional background check on the civil side to look into if they’ve had any judgments against them or any reason to cause us concerns about them handling money,” Walters said.

The Georgetown County School District, like the state’s Department of Education, has a policy in place on how to proceed if prior charges pop up in a background check.

The policy states the district will consider results on an individual basis and consider things like the severity of the offense, age of the individual, direct impact of the offense on the children, the length of time since the conviction or plea, restitution, and expungement.

“We’re not going to take any chances with children’s safety and so we try to be as comprehensive in our background checks as we can,” Walters said. “Now does that say we are 100 percent? I don’t know. So far we haven't really had an issue with it but we certainly do our best to make sure we’re never going to put a child at risk.”

Walters said background checks are usually only conducted at the time a teacher is hired or transferring positions. However, he does check daily arrest reports and will follow up on any tips he receives.

“We’re looking at things that would either impair that person’s ability to carry out their employment or most importantly anything that would put our students and staff at risk,” he said.

Walters explained if charges come up after an employee is hired the district can choose to place the employee on leave until the issue is resolved, even if the state does not require it.

“I can’t talk about specific cases or instances. I can tell you generally though if someone’s got something that is fairly recent or significant then it’s not going to be considered because, like our policy says, we are going to look at the age of the individual when something happens and also how long it’s been since it occurred,” Walters said.

If you are curious about the certification status of a teacher in South Carolina, you can search for teachers by name at the State Board of Education’s website: https://ed.sc.gov/policy/federal-education-programs/esea-title-ii-part-a1/parents-right-to-know-requirement/educator-qualification-search/

** Note: The site doesn’t state if the license has ever been revoked or suspended.

WMBF Investigates is continuing to look into the process of certifying teachers across the state and will bring you more investigations as the information becomes available.

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