Northfield School Officials Point to Unclear State Law in Hiring of Man With Criminal Record While Acknowledging ‘We Could Have Done Better’

From the Chicago Tribune… read the original article here

Officials at Sunset Ridge School District 29 in Northfield said this week that an allegedly confusing state law regulating background checks for school employees is partly to blame for their failure in preventing a man with a criminal history from working as a custodian and food service worker.

According to a statement from District 29 school board President Adelbert Spaan, the criminal background of David Garcia-Espinal, 40, who police say is suspected of secretly video recording teachers and students in a Sunset Ridge School bathroom, went undetected because of the type of background check that was used.

School District administration relied on background checks provided by the vendors that employed Mr. Garcia, and did not initiate or obtain its own fingerprint-based criminal history records check for Mr. Garcia,” the statement reads.

Garcia-Espinal is still at large after a felony warrant was issued for his arrest in January.

What is important to recognize is that there are extenuating circumstances … The law is not clear whether fingerprint-based background checks were required from Mr. Garcia because of his role at the School,” Spaan said in a statement explaining the findings of a law firm hired by the district.

The findings were announced Monday on the District 29 website.

The two Chicago vendors who hired Garcia-Espinal, Smith Maintenance Company and OrganicLife, “provided clean background checks,” Spaan said, adding that the district’s “own policy requires vendors to obtain the fingerprint-based criminal history background checks.

But Spaan stopped short of totally exonerating the district administrators who reviewed the vendors’ contracts.

Resulting from the investigation, it is the Board’s opinion that our administrators did not apply best practices for initiating fingerprint-based criminal background checks for vendor employees who may have direct, daily contact with students,” Spaan said.

The Board has met with the superintendent to share its concerns in his oversight of vendor contracts and background checks for vendor employees and clearly convey expectations for improvement going forward,” Spaan said. “We have also directed the superintendent to impose appropriate disciplinary actions to those involved in oversight of vendor contracts and background checks for vendor employees.

Despite the school board’s acknowledgment that district administrators “could have done better,Kevin Golden, an attorney for one of the 14 Sunset Ridge teachers who have filed lawsuits, said his client found the school district’s recent findings insulting.

She was extremely upset and taken aback that the school district was issuing a report at such an early stage,” Golden said. “What’s happening here is the district is preparing a defense for all of the lawsuits they will be seeing from the families of students who were victims.

Under Illinois law, the teachers are prevented from naming the school district in their lawsuits, as employer-related complaints for damages are handled through Workers’ Compensation, Golden said.

When I read in the report that the district said, ‘we could have done better,’ I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding me. This report reeks of inconsistencies,” Golden said.

In a separate statement posted on the district’s website Monday, District 29 Superintendent Ed Stange took responsibility for the matter, writing, “Although I do not personally manage vendor contracts, I, as the Superintendent, am responsible for oversight of the entire District.

In this instance, I did not ensure that the criminal background checks received by the business office for Mr. Garcia were, in fact, fingerprint-based background checks,” Stange wrote. “Whether or not fingerprint based background checks were required by law, I agree with the conclusion that it would have been the best practice for our District to complete them, and not rely on the vendors. To the District 29 parents, guardians, staff and Board, I offer you my sincerest apology.

Spaan suggested in the recent statement to the community that the district was also victimized by Garcia-Espinal’s alleged crime.

Ultimately, the school community was victimized by an independent criminal act completely unrelated to any actions of the School District,” Spaan said. “We will never know if obtaining a fingerprint-based criminal background check in this instance would have prevented this incident. But, again, we know we could have done better, and we vow to do so.