Originally created 07/31/05

Educators must go through screening

Many parents are still disturbed by allegations that a Columbia County substitute teacher might have had inappropriate contact with pupils. It has led to questions about how they can make sure their children are safe in the classroom.

One quick way might be to call the school and flat out ask who's teaching.

Marion Gary, the assistant superintendent for administration for Aiken County Public Schools, said parents also should trust that school officials do their best to keep bad people from getting into the classrooms.

Aiken County does background checks on substitutes and volunteers who work in the district, Ms. Gary said.

The district gets those reports from the State Law Enforcement Division, she said, and school officials also check references.

Anyone with a criminal record doesn't get hired, she said.

Although regular teachers hired by the state undergo an FBI background check, though, substitutes and select volunteers could escape that scrutiny.

But Ms. Gary said school officials are confident that the people they hire as substitutes, or allow to volunteer, are reputable.

"We just don't have strangers coming in to gain access to our children," she said. "They are usually recommended by someone else. We don't have very many strangers coming in saying, 'I want to volunteer.' That would cause immediate suspicion if that were to occur."

If school officials are wrong about someone who's hired or allowed to volunteer, Aiken County has a system in place to get that adult away from children - either permanently or until the allegations are proved false.

Ms. Gary said teachers can be removed from classrooms depending on the complaint, such as abuse of a child.

During the administrative leave, Ms. Gary said, school officials do an investigation.

If the allegation is proven true, depending on its nature, the teacher can be fired and reported to the state Department of Education.

If charges are unfounded, however, the teacher is allowed back in the classroom. Ms. Gary said students can be moved to other classrooms if parents are uncomfortable with them remaining with certain teachers, but school officials will first try to resolve problems.

If an accusation or concern is leveled at a substitute - even if it's nothing concrete - that person is relieved of his or her duties during the investigation, Ms. Gary said. He or she would stay off substitute duty until the concerns are determined to be founded or unfounded.

"We want our parents to have confidence in who we have in our classrooms," Ms. Gary said. "If a parent is concerned, we would have to do what we normally do, which is not allow them to sub."

Columbia County school officials have removed William Cleveland from substituting during the investigation into allegations that inappropriate contact occurred with at least six girls between the ages of 9 and 11.

Columbia County school officials are also accused of violating policy by not reporting the alleged molestations immediately.

What parents should do if they have concerns or want to know who is in their child's classroom is call the area assistant superintendent.

And if an adult has done something inappropriate, Ms. Gary said, the child should immediately tattle.

"Tell," she said. "Tell right away any adult who can give the message to the principal so we can deal with that."

Ms. Gary said Aiken County, fortunately, has not had any recent incidents of school teachers, substitutes or volunteers making inappropriate contact with students, but she said she couldn't say whether it has happened.

"We work very hard to make sure that our people are well recommended, and we check references and we do the SLED report and all the things we can do on our end to ensure we don't have that problem," she said.

Everyone who works in a Richmond County school undergoes a Georgia Bureau of Investigation criminal background check in addition to a fingerprint screening that is conducted by the FBI, said Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Missoura Ashe. All teachers, substitutes and volunteers have the state-run background checks.

Volunteers also go through Communities in School training, Dr. Ashe said.

And even the best systems aren't fail-safe. Columbia County Schools Human Resources Director Connie Davis said that Mr. Cleveland, 67, of Augusta, passed a stringent background check conducted by the school system, as required by state law.

Potential employees must be fingerprinted, and undergo both Federal Bureau of Investigation and Georgia Bureau of Investigation background checks.

In the past, Ms. Davis said, she has received more complaints about the slowness of the hiring process than the backgrounds of school system employees.

"I get complaints all the time about us taking too long to hire people," she said. "I'm like, 'Look, I go to bed and I can sleep at night because I know we've done our very best job to make sure these people that were given access to children are as safe as we can make sure that they are.' "

Staff writers Greg Gelpi and Donnie Fetter contributed to this article.

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.

Who's Teaching?

For parents
- If parents are concerned about someone in their classroom, they should contact school officials.
- Substitutes are removed from duty while school officials investigate specific concerns, and depending on the nature of the complaint, teachers can be, too.
- Students can be removed from classrooms if problems with teachers cannot be resolved.
- If parents have questions about the background on someone in their child's classroom, they should contact the area assistant superintendent.

What parents can tell their children:
If a child is uncomfortable with an adult in their classroom - or that adult has done something inappropriate - they should immediately tell another adult in the school so an investigation can be launched.
Source: Aiken County Board of Education

It's your call
If you are concerned that your child has been a victim of a crime at school and the school has not reported it to police, call them yourself:
- North Augusta Public Safety: (803) 279-2121
- Aiken County Sheriff's Office: (803) 648-6811
- Aiken Department of Public Safety: (803) 642-7620
- Columbia County Sheriff's Office: (706) 541-2800
- Richmond County Sheriff's Office: (706) 821-1000
- Richmond County Board of Education Police Department: (706) 823-6656

Let's Talk
Before you send your children back to school, in light of recent headlines, you might want to take a moment and talk to them about inappropriate touching and sexual abuse. Here's some advice from the Cumbee Center:
- Be comfortable with the topic.
- Tell them to trust their instincts. When something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.
- Tell your child to get away from people and situations that make him or her feel uncomfortable.
- Teach them to talk to someone they trust, even if it's not you.
- Strangers aren't the only threat. Let your child know that inappropriate touching by classmates, coaches or teachers is wrong.
- Teach them to respect others.
Source: Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons Inc.

What one system is doing
Richmond County school board attorney Pete Fletcher is drafting a policy that would require all vendors and contractors to screen their employees for registered sex offenders in an effort to keep sex offenders away from children and staffers. Mr. Fletcher is expected to return to the board with a proposal at its August meeting.


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