Formal Inquiry Into Md. Dept. of Ed. Decision Not to Use Teacher License Background Check System in 2015, 2016

A group of state legislators launched a formal inquiry into a decision by the Maryland State Department of Education to stop using a national teacher license background check service in 2015 and 2016.

The decision was revealed in a February investigation by the News-4 I-Team and was unknown to several major Maryland school districts.

The national NASDTEC database is used voluntarily by all 50 states to exchange notifications about teachers who engage is misconduct. The NASDTEC database helps ensure a teacher whose license is revoked in one state for abuse or sexual misconduct with a student is red flagged if he or she tries to find work in another state.

The I-Team investigation revealed the Maryland State Department of Education stopped using the NASDTEC database between July 2015 and June 2016, citing concerns about data security in the system. Several school districts said they were unaware until notified by the I-Team.

The I-Team review found a teacher slipped through the cracks in Maryland during the lapse. The teacher had admitted sending inappropriate text messages to a student while working in Florida in 2013, but he eluded detection in Maryland and found two public school teaching positions in 2016, including one in Silver Spring during the period in which the state wasn’t using NASDTEC.

In a letter to the Maryland State Department of Education, state legislators asked the agency to explain their decision to stop using the database. The letter requested the exact dates of the lapse and asked whether Maryland has checked the licensure backgrounds of teachers hired during the outage.

“We were concerned to learn through the media that in 2016, there was a lapse in the state’s use of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Curriculum clearinghouse to determine if newly hired educators in Maryland have previously undergone disciplinary action in other states,” the letter said.

“A lot of my colleagues were concerned to hear about it,” said Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery County). “That’s a first line of defense, just like background checks are, to protect the safety of students and staff.”

“I think it’s alarming and shocking,” said Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda) said. “It has a lot of consequences. It puts the kids at risk.”

In a formal response to the legislators’ inquiry, the Maryland State Department of Education said it was necessary to stop using the database because a file transfer system used by NASDTEC was not properly encrypted to protect the information shared by the agency’s licensing official.

In its response to the state legislators, the agency said it was “an oversight” not to notify Maryland school districts about the decision.

The agency confirmed it ran a reviewed and updated its files after restoring its connection with the NASDTEC system. It found one other teacher whose Maryland teaching license should have been revoked during the yearlong lapse. But the agency said the second teacher was not teaching in a Maryland school at the time.

In a hearing shortly after the I-Team report, the chair of the Montgomery County Council Education Committee asked Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent Jack Smith if the district was considering changing its background check system for teachers.

“We’re waiting to hear from the state of Maryland about what they’re doing,” Smith said. “We want to hear from them. Simultaneously, we are looking at what we can do around this.”

Montgomery County Public Schools has applied to get direct access to the NASDTEC database to check the licensure backgrounds of the teachers it hires. The system, which was once restricted to state departments of education, is now offered to local school districts.

In its response to legislators, the Maryland State Department of Education said, “The most reliable means to identify issues that should prevent the hiring of educators with disciplinary action in processing in another state is through an employer reference check and the honest reporting of issues by previous employers. The hiring of local educators is the responsibility of each local school system.”

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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