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Audit says APS background checks fall short

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state’s attorney general says the employee background check process at Albuquerque Public Schools is so incomplete and inadequate that it leaves students “at a level 10, as far as risk.”

BALDERAS: Says he can't vouch for all the employees at district

BALDERAS: Says he can’t vouch for all the employees at district

Attorney General Hector Balderas said he cannot vouch that there aren’t people charged with child molestation working at schools, pointing out that thousands of employees hired before 1999 haven’t been checked.

And the district is taking too long to catch up on the checks, according to an audit conducted by his office. The audit report also said part of the problem could be due to inadequate background checking software run through the state Department of Public Safety.

Balderas launched the audit of the district Aug. 24, amid community outrage that a handpicked deputy superintendent, Jason Martinez, had avoided a mandatory criminal background check – a check that would have revealed he was facing charges in Colorado of molesting two young boys.

At the time, Balderas said he was launching a “detailed review, not only of the APS policies and procedures regarding the hiring of staff, but also a thorough security assessment of the failures that allowed a person charged with six counts of sexual assault on a child into our schools.”

Balderas, whose daughter attends an APS school, released the results of the review Wednesday.

“They are very behind in terms of the security systems in place,” Balderas said in an interview Wednesday evening, adding that he is “disgusted and alarmed” at the lapses.

The school district released a general statement Wednesday evening: “The Albuquerque Public Schools received the New Mexico attorney general’s recommendations relating to background checks for employees late (Wednesday) morning. The district worked in collaboration with the AG’s Office and welcomes its recommendations as we strive to ensure the safety of all APS students. We will be reviewing the recommendations and working with the state Public Education Department and other state agencies to see that our policies and procedures, as well as the implementation of those policies in a timely manner, protect students to the best of our ability.”

MARTINEZ: Ex-APS official faced charges

MARTINEZ: Ex-APS official faced charges

District spokesman Rigo Chavez said Wednesday there is a task force at APS that is addressing the background check process improvements.

The school district, one of the largest in the nation, employs about 15,000 people including 6,100 teachers, according to its website.

APS implemented background checks for all employees in 1999, Chavez said. Before that only teachers were given background checks.

Among the main issues the review raised:

  • An internal APS audit, which Balderas called “troubling,” identified 2,270 employees who hadn’t received background checks because they were hired before 1999. But Balderas said in an interview that at first, APS identified more than 4,000 people who hadn’t had background checks.

That discrepancy alone shows the system is inadequate, he said.

Balderas and the report say the district made a slow effort to start background checks on those grandfathered in – even after the issue with Martinez brought the subject into focus – setting a timeline of May 2016 to finish checking that pool.

“Due to the amount of time that has already passed since the Jason Martinez matter occurred, this deadline seems unreasonable and poses further risk to the children in your district,” Balderas says in the report, adding that he plans to monitor the district on this point.

  • APS’ audit identified four employees, hired since 1999, who had not received background checks, but APS could not explain why.

“It is unacceptable that APS was unable to identify a definitive cause of this deficiency,” the report says.

  • APS would be wise to make sure its background check software service is adequate for its needs.

Chavez said APS sends out its background investigations to the Department of Public Safety and can’t control how long each check takes. He said some of the long timeline is because the time it takes to return a request is out of APS’ control. He did not have information Wednesday night about how long each request takes to get back from DPS.

Chavez also said the district will need extra money to clear up the backlog of grandfathered employees who, as a condition of their initial employment were not required to have a background check and thus are not required to pay for it as new employees are.

  • Balderas said APS needs to change its background policy, which currently requires background checks for all prospective employees, district contractors and contractor employees and all volunteers who may have unsupervised access to students, to include sanctions for administrators who don’t enforce background checks. He also said the school should immediately make available a list of all the employees it has checked so parents can investigate their child’s school staff.

And the district does not routinely spot-check or revise background checks to alert to new charges, a policy it should put into place in addition to strengthening language requiring employees to report contact they have with police.

Balderas said in the report that based on the information APS gave his office, “We are unable to affirmatively state that the unfortunate events of September were isolated and will not occur again.”