Fingerprints for hire: 'Jeremy Bell Law' would make schools investigate all employees

US Capitol Building
A congressman from Pennsylvania wants to end abuse in America’s schools, but he says the starting point is fingerprinting each and every employee hired within the country’s educational system.

US Rep Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, is asking America’s lawmakers to approve H.R. 3766, the Jeremy Bell Act of 2011, in an effort to curb reports of abuse and negligence in classrooms from coast-to-coast. Named in remembrance of a student killed by his school principal in 1997, the Jeremy Bell Act has already garnered its fair share of support — and rightfully so. Few, if any, will argue against protecting the youth of America against criminals of all sorts, but the pushing for the passing of H.R. 3766 is raising concern over some who fear it will infringe on the privacy of any person with their eyes open for employment opportunities during a dire time for job seekers while alienating those already on the payroll.

Provisions within the proposed Jeremy Bell Act would see to it that school officials are held liable if they extend employment to anyone that they are aware to have engaged in sexual conduct with an individual under the age of 18. “If the employers knows that such an employee” engaged in the act, reads Sec. 1822 of the bill, that person could be fined and sentenced to a prison term of up to five years.

Also included in the act, though, is a provision that would nix federal funding for schools from coast-to-coast. Under Sec. 9537 of the bill, “A private or public elementary school, a private or public secondary school, a local educational agency or State educational agency may receive funds under this Act for a fiscal year only if the school or agency has in effect a policy that ensures that every individual employed by the school or agency has undergone a fingerprint-based check of the national crime information databases.”

While Sec 9537 is being implemented to ensure that school’s do not hire anyone that could pose a risk to the students, it will at the same time subject anyone seeking employment on any level — from cafeteria workers and custodians to department heads — to a rigorous screening process that could in turn cancel any chances of obtaining a job. Is a misdemeanor incurred during a would-be janitor’s college days grounds for trashing their application for employment? Not necessarily, but it will mean that schools of all sizes and sorts will be able to single out prospective hires for anything on their permanent record.

Also of concern is how schools will be able to handle managing that sensitive information without top-tier security in place. The American Civil Liberties Union weighed in on a similar case in 2002 when New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development wanted all tenants of subsidizing living to be fingerprinted and kept on file.

"The system would involve the creation of a database of tenant fingerprints which would be vulnerable to serious abuse," the ACLU’s Donna Lieberman explained at the time. "The city should not approve such a plan without a careful, detailed assessment of the actual security needs, the anticipated security benefits, the burdens on tenants, and the privacy risks."

In another instance last year, the ACLU also fired back at calls to have residents of Peoria, Arizona fingerprinted and kept on file for picking up prescriptions within the city limits. The ACLU opposed that effort as well, arguing that the collection of information — while publicized as an effort to curb crime — would actually just expand law enforcement’s ability to collect information on the innocent that could only be used against them in the future.

“The pharmacies will function as annexes to police stations for the collection of personal information and as conduits for the transmission of private information to law enforcement agencies,” ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Daniel Pochoda explained at the time.

A similar attempt to enforce a fingerprinting program on all drivers within the state of Arizona a few years earlier was met by similar opposition from the ACLU. In 2005, Dawn Wyland of the union’s Arizona division explained, "My gut tells me this is just a horrible violation of privacy," adding that "It is compelling someone to give evidence against themselves for an unrelated crime."

The Jeremy Bell Act would be a first in that it would apply to schools all over the US, but similar cases have already occurred. In 2010 a Texas school teacher had her certification suspended for refusing to be fingerprinted as part of a background check. Even though Pam McLaurin had been teaching for two decades, school officials stripped her of her license for not inking her hand, something she opposed for religious purposes by insisting she would “bear the mark of the beast.” Despite a legal battle that tried to reverse the school’s suspension of McLaurin, the Texas Education Agency argued that they never forced the teacher to submit fingerprints; rather, it was her decision to follow suit — simply refusing meant she would forfeit her role with the school.

In touting H.R. 3766 around the Capitol Building, Congressman Fitzpatrick acknowledges that abuse within schools, while evident in cases, is far from rampant. "Regardless of how rare these abuses are, they are so serious and so egregious that it's our responsibility as lawmakers to do everything we can to keep sexual predators from moving anonymously through our schools,” said the congressman, reports Calkins Media’s Bucks County Courier Times. Does that mean subjecting every person in need of employment to a background check is the answer? As of this week, Fitzpatrick was conducting interviews with the media pushing for the passing of the Jeremy Bell Act, but a vote in Congress has yet to be scheduled.

H.R. 3766 was introduced to Congress this past December and has four co-sponsors.