For many hours each week, parents regularly relinquish their children to the care of other adults in schools and child-care facilities. These other adults -- essentially strangers who are filling in for parents -- play a delicate role in our society. No one wants to impose intolerable burdens on them, invading their privacy. But neither does anyone want the wrong people in charge of unprotected and vulnerable youth.
This question of balance arises because in several local school systems recently there have been reports of sex offenses by teachers and other employees against children. The immediate instinct of the school systems has been to institute or strengthen systems to perform criminal-records checks on teachers and other employees. That is a good thing to do -- carefully.
In some of the recent episodes there is no question what should be, or should have been, done. A private school in Bethesda hired as a gymnastics instructor in 1978 a man who had been convicted of a sexual offense against a young boy in 1972; he was convicted of another offense in 1980. A criminal-records check could have averted the second offense, and should have been made.
In a variation on the theme, a teacher in Loudoun County with no previous criminal record pleaded guilty to trying to convince a 15-year-old girl to pose in the nude. The guilty plea was placed in his personnel file to alert future employers. That, too, is well within the bounds of good policy, and the same should have occurred in the District, where school system officials were informed of an investigation against a former school social worker that led to two guilty pleas on felony counts of indecent liberties with a minor. In this case the record of the convictions did not go into the files.
The situation in Fairfax County is different. There school Supt. Robert Spillane has the problem that nine school employees have been either arrested or accused of criminal acts against children. He wants the authorities to bar court settlements that keep records of arrests out of school system personnel files. So far so good. But he also says eight of the employees will be fired or asked to resign as a result of the allegations of crimes against youths. Here a difficult line is crossed. Unlike the cases in other jurisdictions, these do not involve admitted or proven guilt, and some of these employees could well be proven innocent. Demanding resignations before that occurs is unfair.
Police departments routinely place officers on administrative leave, pending the outcome of internal investigations. If they are proven innocent, no stigma is attached. The same idea could take accused school employees away from children, providing protection and reassuring parents while not prematurely tarnishing the reputations of those adults who may emerge unscathed. That is a better balance; the rights of the accused must be considered too.