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Published: Wednesday, 12/6/2000

Criminal checks come first

The revelation that a convicted felon was hired to teach at Toledo's Academy of Business and Technology leads to the inescapable conclusion that charter schools do themselves a disservice if they fail to take extra care to ensure their students' safety.

The charter school movement is a nascent educational experiment that we have strongly supported. The idea that children can benefit from educational environments different from those in traditional public schools is a valid one. But that does not mean that corners can be cut or state law ignored on personnel matters, which appears to be what happened in the case of Luther McKinstry III.

Mr. McKinstry, hired to teach at the Woodland Avenue school on Nov. 20, served six months in prison on a drug-trafficking conviction in 1992 and another two years, from 1996-98, for forgery and theft. Ohio law is very clear: A person who has been convicted of drug or felony theft crimes may not be employed as a teacher. Now that Mr. McKinstry has been charged with stealing from an auto dealership where he previously worked, the case for remedial action is all the more compelling.

The school's defense in the matter is shaky, to put it charitably. The principal concedes that she knew Mr. McKinstry had a criminal record but said he had assured her that “it was off his record,” a statement open to varying interpretations, including that the record had been legally expunged. School records show he signed a “good faith” statement certifying that he had never been convicted of a felony, although Mr. McKinstry told a reporter he did not.

While state law allows 60 days for a criminal background check for newly hired teachers, schools owe it to themselves, their students, and the public to have the procedure carried out in advance, before the person has direct contact with children. Merely accepting the word of an applicant is not good enough. If there is a dangerous loophole in the law, the General Assembly should look into closing it.

Painstaking care to hire teachers of good character is essential for all schools, but especially so for charter schools. They are just gaining a foothold in the educational community and should be concerned about gaining the public's confidence as safe places for learning.

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