ALBANY, NY — Most New Yorkers know that public school teachers and administrators are subject to a criminal background check. What few realize is that this is a one time event, at the time of initial hire, and that records of criminal convictions obtained as a result are withheld from local school districts save one, New York City. As a result, school districts throughout the state have unwittingly hired convicted criminals, even for senior administrative positions.
One New York State legislator is looking to change that — and looking for help from her Albany colleagues, parents, students and the public.
New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-88) has developed four bill ideas in response to the Freddie Dean Smith case. The first bill was introduced to the Assembly last Spring and has been referred to committee.
Talk of the Sound first reported in 2014 that Smith was licensed as an administrator by SED in 2003 despite an extensive criminal history. At the time Smith was first hired in New York he was subject to a 50-State FBI Criminal Background Check by SED’s Office of School Personnel Review and Accountability (OSPRA). That 2003 fingerprint background check revealed that he had numerous criminal convictions including a then-recent felony conviction for endangering the life of a police officer for which Smith was still serving his sentence at the time.
Smith’s license remains in “good standing” today, despite additional criminal convictions, two separate sex crimes, revelations of academic fraud that led to the revocation of his doctorate, making numerous false statements on job applications ranging from lying about his criminal history, to claiming to have graduated from an elite New England prep school, claiming that his grandfather was a lawyer in the Brown v. Board of Education case, to claims he obtained teaching fellowships that do not exist, won academic awards he did not win, earned degrees he did not earn, taught at schools where he did not teach — and what amount to lifetime bans imposed by three states and New York City.
SED officials initially responded to reporting by Talk of the Sound of Smith’s criminal history by stating they had launched a “moral fitness” investigation into Smith in 2014. Since that time, SED has repeatedly refused to comment further on the matter including refusing to answer questions from Talk of the Sound, Paulin and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic Leader in the State Senate – all on the grounds that no charges were brought against Smith. No action has ever been taken against Smith’s license which he has since used in seeking to obtain state education licenses in Virginia and Maryland.
Paulin is determined to make sure that going forward local school districts are fully informed by SED about the criminal background of a potential hire before hiring a convicted felon like Smith.
The first step is to ensure that a 50-state background check is completed each time a teacher or administrator is hired for a new position not just at the time of initial hiring.
Paulin introduced Bill A.10208 to the New York State Assembly on May 17. The bill was referred to the Committees on Education, Higher Education, and Health of which Paulin is a member and former Chairperson.
Once the law requiring a 50-state background check is amended to include all subsequent hires, additional legislation will allow SED to share the information in the background check with school districts so that districts can make an informed hiring decision.
In Smith’s case, he did get a criminal background check and it turned up disqualifying information. In New York State a misdemeanor conviction is not grounds to deny a license unless the crime pertains directly to the position. In Smith’s case he has numerous disqualifying convictions (assault, sex crime, fraud, etc.). A felony conviction is an automatic disqualification for a license. Smith has one felony conviction.
Based on OSPRA’s own policy, Smith should never have been granted a license by SED which has refused to provide related records or even say who authorized granting Smith a license and how that came about despite Smith’s felony conviction and 11 misdemeanor crimes including violent crimes and sex crimes.
Paulin sent an email to the New York State Education Department on February 25th, 2016.
“I asked them what needs to be changed in the law to allow them to make better decisions when making determinations whether to clear someone for employment or not based on a background check,” said Paulin.
“They have not responded,” she added.
Smith has been banned by Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York City but remains in “good standing” in New York State.
Maryland revoked Smith’s licensed based on a state law that allows revocation for lying on a license application.
Paulin said that an other change to the law she has in mind will allow for license revocation if an applicant is found to have made a false statement on background check forms.