The New Jersey Department of Education announced on January 13th that Board of Education members will be given until January 27th to undergo criminal background checks. If they fail to do so, they will be fired from their positions.
In May Governor Chris Christie signed a law that prohibits anyone from serving on a school board or charter school board if they have been convicted of certain crimes. Among the crimes that would make someone ineligible are drug possession and distribution, burglary, aggravated assault, robbery, perjury, criminal mischief, bias intimidation, any first- or second-degree crime and any fourth-degree crime involving minors. The idea is that by instituting background checks for existing board members and doing employment screening for new board members, the state can decrease the likelihood of a criminal incident, in much the same way that many private employers do.
This month, 185 New Jersey board members received letters declaring them ineligible because they failed to submit to a criminal background check by the previous deadline, which was December 31 of 2011. An extension was granted by acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf as a result of pressure from lawmakers and the New Jersey School Boards Association.
So far at least two school board members have chosen to resign rather than submit to the criminal background check.
Employment background checks are the norm in most school districts for teachers, office workers and maintenance staff, but the requirements vary greatly. There is no federal mandate for background checks, and even though most states do have laws requiring background checks for school employees, there is considerable difference in the laws between states. Most states do not have laws requiring school board members to submit to employment screening or background checks, which is what makes the New Jersey case unique.