CRIME: Criminal history?
When UND elementary education major Stacey Holte returns to class this fall, she may have more than the typical registration ordeal. A new law passed by the state Legislature in April grants the North Dakota University System wide-ranging authori...
When UND elementary education major Stacey Holte returns to class this fall, she may have more than the typical registration ordeal.
A new law passed by the state Legislature in April grants the North Dakota University System wide-ranging authority to perform national criminal background checks through the FBI on selected employees, faculty and students.
The law, which takes effect Aug. 1, could require background checks for as many as 2,000 additional students and 200 additional employees at UND, according to North Dakota University System estimates, and as many as 4,000 students and 800 employees systemwide.
The new law also allows FBI background checks for applicants at a number of other state agencies, ranging from the real estate commission to the racing commission.
A tentative list of university system positions where applicants would be required to undergo background checks includes employees who handle financial information, computer records or medical records; employees with extensive access to buildings such as custodians and plant services staff; employees with extensive contact with students such as counselors, coaches and some faculty members; and top university administrators.
Background checks are being considered for students in fields dealing with vulnerable populations, such as education, physical therapy and social work, according to system officials.
Holte, who will do her student teaching next year before graduating in the spring, said she isn't bothered by the idea of the fingerprint-based check.
"In any job where you're going to be working with children, it's a good thing to keep them safe, and this doesn't really hurt anyone," Holte said. "When I first heard about it, it didn't strike me as wrong or an invasion of privacy. As a parent, I wouldn't want my children to be taught by someone who's been a sexual offender, and I think that's the type of crime they're really looking for, not traffic violations."
UND already performs background checks for students in its aviation, clinical laboratory science, medicine, nursing and physician assistant programs, as well as law students who are placed in federal or state externship programs, according to school officials.
System officials are still debating the precise scope of the background checks and other questions, such as whether the checks will be mandatory or optional and at what point in a student's education the checks will be performed, said university system general counsel Pat Seaworth.
In the aftermath
of Valley City
The new law was inspired in large part by the killing last September of Valley City State University student Mindy Morgenstern, said state Senator Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, the bill's chief sponsor and a driving force behind the legislation.
"The incident obviously caused a great deal of concern statewide and was on everyone's radar screen," said Robinson, whose nonlegislative job is the university's director of university advancement. "What really surprised many of us was the lack of a comprehensive system of background checks in place in North Dakota."
The fingerprint-based FBI background checks authorized by the new law are more comprehensive than statewide checks by North Dakota's Bureau of Criminal Investigation and multi-state checks made by private companies, Seaworth said, because federal laws require that all crimes be reported to the bureau's database.
Private searches can cost several hundred dollars, compared with about $50 for an FBI check, and are often incomplete because some states don't maintain a central database of criminal information, Seaworth said. He said fingerprint-based checks are also superior because they account for name changes.
Seaworth said the FBI will not perform background checks for a state agency unless state law specifically authorizes it to.
Moe Maurice Gibbs, who was charged in Morgenstern's slaying, underwent a criminal history check in four states when he was hired as a Barnes County jailer. That check, which included both his current name and his former name, Glen Dale Morgan Jr., failed to uncover a 5½-year sentence Gibbs served in military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for attempted premeditated murder. Officials said a fingerprint-based national FBI check would have turned up the conviction.
A Minot jury deciding Gibbs' fate deadlocked 6-6 Thursday. Prosecutors have not decided whether to retry the case.
A rocky path
Legislation authorizing the new background checks didn't pass smoothly into law. The section of the bill authorizing the university system searches was removed in the House Appropriations Committee and only reinserted in a House-Senate conference committee after April's shooting at Virginia Tech that left 33 students and teachers dead.
Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, who led the fight to amend the bill, said he was concerned the bill's language gave too much discretion to the university system. Glassheim said he was concerned students might be required to undergo a background check simply for taking an education or counseling class.
"I understand the importance of a background check if you're going to do an internship in a school and be dealing with students," Glassheim said. "But I reasoned that maybe half or more of students who might be taking an education class would never actually teach. I was concerned that was excessively intrusive."
Glassheim said university system Chancellor Bill Goetz could still exercise discretion in imposing the background checks, but he's concerned the chancellor and the State Board of Higher Education might be influenced by fear of a missed check more than concern for students' privacy.
"All I know is when you're in public life, if there's an opportunity to protect yourself more, you'll usually take advantage of it," Glassheim said. "So, my sense is there will be more background checks required than are necessary. One hopes they'll use common sense in making those decisions, but you just can't be sure."
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office helped coordinate the legislation authorizing the FBI checks. Stenehjem defended the bill's language, saying identifying each position or field to be checked would have been impossible during the three-month Legislative session.
Stenehjem said he doesn't view the background checks as an invasion of privacy because all the criminal information the checks reveal is publicly available. The FBI simply gathers the information in a central database.
"What we're talking about are people's criminal convictions," he said. "A person with enough resources and time would be able to go around the country and get these records. These are not personal details about anybody. If I'm living in a dormitory, I'd like to know if my RA (resident attendent) is a convicted sex offender or a burglar."
UND Provost Greg Weisenstein helped compose the list of academic programs where students will undergo criminal background checks. He described the list as a delicate balance between addressing security concerns and not encroaching on students' privacy.
"Optimally, we want that balance to be right," Weisenstein said. "Right now, we're gaining some experience with this on a national level, and with experience, we'll know better where that balance should rest."
The majority of students who undergo background checks will enter licensed professions, he said, such as public school teachers, nurses and physical therapists, who will have to undergo a background check to obtain their licenses.
The list of university positions for which background checks are recommended was put together by the human resources directors at the state's 11 colleges and universities. Diane Nelson, UND human resources director, said she thinks the checks will help ensure campus security, but administrative procedures will have to be put in place to properly handle the background reports when they arrive.
"I think it's a matter of making sure that when we get negative information back, we know how to handle that," she said. "Who makes the decision not to hire someone and what's our standard? Is there any negative information that could come back where we'd still hire that person? I think we need to get a handle on all of that before we can be really confident that this will be successful and to everyone's benefit."
The University of Minnesota does background checks on a number of job applicants, including applicants for top administrative positions, applicants who will have access to dormitories and other living quarters and job applicants and students who will have access to vulnerable populations, said university spokesman Daniel Wolter.
Wolter said the results of those background checks are seen only by the school's central human resources office, and there's a case-by-case determination on whether a particular crime should exclude an applicant from a particular job.
University of South Dakota spokesman Phil Carter said that school does background checks only on applicants for public safety jobs and for jobs supervising minors. Carter said he believes the school does background checks on students in some fields, but he was not able to confirm the fact Friday.
Robinson said lawmakers or university officials may have to make future revision on the way the law is implemented, but he thinks the university system is on the right track.
"I think there's no question we've made substantive improvements in the way we're doing business," Robinson said. "We lost the life of a wonderful young gal, and she'll be gone forever. At the minimum, we'd better learn from the past."
Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or email@example.com .