Politics & Government

Teachers should know if a student has committed a crime, but often aren’t told, auditor’s office finds

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When a student commits a crime in Washington state, the event is supposed to trigger a series of notifications.

Ultimately, every teacher the student ever has from that point on is supposed to know about it.

But according to a two-part report from the state auditor’s office — the second of which was released Monday — the parties required to pass the message along, including courts, state agencies, county sheriffs and principals, fail to do so consistently, leaving teachers in the dark and breaking state law.

In their first report, released in May, auditors found that several of the responsible organizations they surveyed couldn’t prove they used consistent processes for notifying schools about students who had been convicted of a crime, recently released from incarceration or registered as a sex offender.

The Department of Corrections and the Department of Social Health Services Juvenile Rehabilitation Program could prove they issued most of the required notifications — but schools could not confirm receiving most of them.

At least some of the misunderstanding can be traced back to the district level, according to the audit, which found that at least 70 school districts did not have complete procedures or policies.

As the chain of responsibility moves down to the school level, there are more holes: Many principals don’t have sufficient knowledge or training about their requirement to share students’ criminal histories with teachers, according to the auditors’ second report.

To fix the problem, auditors say, legislators should convene a work group. One central problem to tackle? Narrowing the list of crimes that actually require a notification. Under the patchwork of current state laws, if all parties complied, schools would receive about 11,000 notifications a year for over 330 criminal offenses.

As a result of the first audit, officials have already made changes: The Department of Corrections said it would use certified mail to send a copy of notifications to districts to better ensure their receipt, and now uses a clearer email subject line for notifications. The Washington State School Directors’ Association also clarified its suggestions for districts.

Many of the 34 principals the auditors spoke to for the audit, which spanned two dozen large and small districts around the state, said they used a case-by-case approach for sharing students’ crimes.

One principal reported understating the crime, telling a teacher that a student had anger-management problems instead of an assault conviction. Another said the notifications were kept in a confidential file and only shown to teachers when they were deemed “serious offenses.”

Some school leaders expressed concern that teachers may treat students differently as a result of the information, and “misunderstand the complicated reasons why students become involved in the juvenile justice system,” the audit said.

The law requires that principals share information about past crimes when students transfer or switch schools because they’re moving into a different grade level. But over half of principals, 59 percent, did not do that. Many said they didn’t know it was mandated.

“We have had a number of cases over the years involving student violence where the perpetrator’s demonstrated history of violence or criminality should have been clearly communicated to teachers and counselors in the school to underscore the importance of supervision with that student,” Cochran told The News Tribune, when asked about the report via email. “Forewarned is forearmed. If school personnel can predict potential danger based on past crimes and violent acts, they can work to prevent future harm.”

“Our Clover Park school District cases over the last few years are a great example of a District which failed to share criminal history information or minimally shared the information and the result was that few people in the District knew to be keeping close tabs on what the student was doing to isolate and sexually abuse developmentally challenged children in the District.”