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A large swath of faculty and staff at Pennsylvania’s public and private colleges will be required to submit to regular criminal background checks as part of a wide-ranging revision to the state's child protection laws.

Many colleges in the state already require certain background checks at the time of hire. But the new law, approved in October, mandates a renewed clearance every three years for all employees who interact with minors. The law is part of a package of bills that aim to strengthen child protection laws in Pennsylvania in response to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University. 

Employees and applicants will have to get a criminal background check by the state police, a set of fingerprints run through the Federal Bureau of Investigation's system and a check of the state’s division of child protective services to determine whether they have been accused of child abuse. Colleges have to keep a copy of the records. And an institution will be guilty of a third-degree misdemeanor if it fails to get a copy of the background checks before hiring someone. 

While K-12 schools already required background checks for their teachers, employees on college campuses are included in this law because of on-campus youth programs, dual enrollment partnerships with high schools and the small portion of freshman students who enroll as 17-year-olds.

Higher education leaders in the state are scrambling to figure out how they’re going to meet the new requirements, which take effect for new hires in a matter of weeks. Existing employees who haven’t had a recent background check will be required to complete one by the end of next year.

Complying with the new rules will be expensive, and a lot of administrative time will be required to maintain up-to-date records, said Mary Young, vice president for government relations at the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.

“There’s as many methods for going about this as there are schools we represent, so this is going to be a major issue for our institutions,” Young said of the association's roughly 90 member colleges.  

Some laws, in particular the Federal Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA), differentiate between 17-year-olds who are considered minors and 17-year-olds who are full-time college students and thus are considered adults on campus.

Pennsylvania’s new law doesn’t make that distinction. For the purposes of child-safety regulations, a minor is anyone under the age of 18, said Cathy Utz, director of child services at the state's Department of Human Services.

The law states that everyone who has "direct contact" with minors is required to have regular background checks. But which employees that includes will vary by campus, Utz said.

Legally, direct contact is defined as someone who either provides care, guidance, or supervision of minors or someone who has routine interaction with minors, she said. The second prong of the definition, about routine interaction, is where things get murky, Utz said. She doesn’t expect colleges interpreting the law to require across-the-board background checks based broadly on job titles.

A janitor who works in secluded buildings after hours wouldn’t qualify as someone who has routine interaction with minors. But one who's in charge of cleaning the student center in the middle of the day might.

Likewise, a university may require all faculty members who teach entry-level courses to get the background checks, since they’re likely to interact with freshmen. But faculty members who only teach upper-level courses or graduate students wouldn’t need to meet the same clearance, Utz said. The state plans to release guidelines to help colleges make such determinations.

Privacy Issues

Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said he's concerned about where all the private information turned up in the background checks will be kept and who will oversee it. If an employee has a record that wasn’t enough to keep him or her from being hired originally, then that information shouldn’t influence his or her career later on, he said.

“[The laws are] being done with the best of intent," he said. "We just want to ensure that the way they’re implemented doesn’t unnecessarily discriminate against anyone."

Right now, some colleges follow the list of crimes in the state’s child protective services law as a guideline for dismissing applicants, Utz said. That list ranges from convictions for serious crimes such as homicide, aggravated assault and rape to a variety of sex crimes, including indecent exposure and prostitution.

In the future, though, colleges could receive more direction from the state on which crimes should bar a potential applicant or employee who was convicted while employed.

That’s because the child protection package includes a clause creating a commission to study which crimes should constitute lifetime bans or temporary bans on employment at schools. That recommendation, which is due at the end of next year, would then go before the state’s general assembly as a recommendation for legislation, Utz said.

Kenn Marshall, media relations manager for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said it will be helpful for the system’s 14 universities to have the information from the background checks. But he said a criminal record won’t automatically bar someone from employment.

In an attempt to be proactive, the state system will require all employees to undergo the three-tiered background check.  So far, there hasn’t been any pushback from faculty members, though Marshall said that may be because it’s still too early in the law's implementation.

“It’s going to require more than what’s been done in the past, but it’s something we were moving toward with new policies in the past 18  months,” he said. The system also designates all university employees as mandatory reporters of child abuse, meaning they’re legally required to report suspicions of abuse. (The state’s new law also mandates that for all colleges.)

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources recommends for safety reasons that all colleges have a policy of requiring background checks for all new employees, said Andy Brantley, the group's president and CEO. The association also advises, as the Pennsylvania law requires, that colleges have a policy telling employees to report any convictions that take place after they were hired. 

However, Brantley said he wasn't sure whether states aside from Pennsylvania have used legislation to push colleges to do background checks.

Cost to Colleges

Background checks at colleges haven't always been common practice, though. Brian Curran, an art history professor at Penn State and president of the university’s American Association of University Presidents chapter, said he can't remember needing to get a background check in his 18 years with the university, and he expects that's true of thousands of other faculty members. He was surprised to learn about the regular background checks this week, saying it was the first time he'd heard about it. 

Penn State has notified faculty members who likely will be affected by the new law and will notify more individuals as the definitions are clarified, said Geoff Rushton, a university spokesman. 

Without further clarification about which employees, volunteers or contractors meet the definition of "routine interaction" with minors, it's hard to guess how many employees will be affected, Rushton said. But there are about 1,600 undergraduate students at Penn State's various campuses who are under 18 and therefore qualify under the child protection laws. Those students are enrolled in roughly 6,200 courses across the university.

Penn State plans to pay for all faculty and staff to meet the requirements. Altogether, the three tests cost just shy of $50 per person. 

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