Fingerprint bill most recent move on religious, private school oversight

Rick Karlin for Times Union

Originally published in Times Union

A bill passed Tuesday state Senate would require religious and private schools to fingerprint and conduct criminal history searches on potential employees, rules already employed by public schools since 2001.

Under current law, public schools in the state submit fingerprints for prospective employees to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services and FBI for background checks. The checks are for employees who have contact with students.

One of the main results of the bill would be to screen out potential sex abusers from working in religious and private schools, say supporters.

"The 40,000 registered sex offenders in New York State, and thousands of other persons with serious criminal histories, should not work in either public or nonpublic schools," said Elliot Pasik, President of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. "The experts are unanimous that employee fingerprinting and background checks are an essential tool for assuring child safety."

Pasik said it was unclear how the bill would progress in the Assembly. "I've sent emails to Assembly committee members but haven't heard back," he said.

In January, lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act which expanded the statute of limitations for lawsuits stemming from cases of child sexual abuse. The law allows past victims to sue their abusers in civil court up until they are 55, up from the previous limit of 23.

The new bill, sponsored by Long Island Democratic Sen. Todd Kaminsky has an Assembly version sponsored by Queens Democrat Nily Rozic. The Kaminsky/Rozic measure would also apply that standard to private and religious schools.

It's the latest example of how state lawmakers this year are cracking down on private schools. A combination of Democratic control in the Senate and a law allowing for more lawsuits over past instances of child abuse is sparking more oversight of private schools and in some cases putting them on par with public schools.

The measure also comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill in December that requires religious and private schools to report incidents of sex abuse by teachers or other staffers to the police. A similar law has been on the books for public schools for almost two decades.

Private and religious schools educate nearly 500,000 of New York’s approximately 3 million K-12 students.

In addition to the background bill, the Senate Tuesday also passed a measure that would mandate religious and private schools have coaches or other adults trained in dealing with concussions that students may receive in sports or other activities. That rule, which ensures that adults know how to recognize and deal with concussions, has applied to public schools since 2012.

And religious and private schools this year are facing new oversight regarding what they teach. Following legislation in late 2018, the state Education Department in November said it would oversee periodic reviews of non-public schools to make sure they were teaching the same basics in subjects like math English and science as in the public schools.

That sparked a lawsuit, which caused the Education Department this month to restart the process which this time will include a public comment period before final oversight rules are developed.