Do local school districts do web checks on teachers before hiring? Should they? And should such browsing be conducted on current employees, as well?
The answer to the first question is largely no, though officials in several districts said they are considering adding web reviews to the list of background checks in the wake of the dust-up around Wilkes-Barre Area teacher Elise Mosca. A racy video in which she appeared surfaced while she is on unpaid leave to compete in the ABC reality TV show “The Bachelor.”
The second question sparks concerns of privacy and relevance.
By law, all teacher candidates go through finger-printing, state police and FBI criminal checks. But when asked, only one district official in Luzerne County said the district already does some web browsing of potential candidates. Another district is beginning a limited form of web checking.
In an email, Crestwood Superintendent Dave McLaughlin Smith said his district does some web checks on candidates, while Hazleton Area Superintendent Francis Antonelli said the district is implementing some checking, primarily on candidates from out of the area the district knows little about.
“We will do web searches, especially on folks with whom we have a degree of unfamiliarity,” Antonelli said. But Human Resources Director Jacqueline McHale added that such searches generally do not include visiting social media sites, such as Facebook, or doing broad searches by simply typing a name in.
“We utilize newspaper archives,” McHale said. “If we know you are coming from a certain district, a search of newspapers in that area can turn up a lot of useful information.”
Antonelli noted that such searches can be more helpful than simply calling references provided by a candidate. “You’re not going to ask anyone to write a recommendation for you if you think they might give you an unfavorable recommendation, so those sort of things don’t carry much weight.”
As to searching social media sites for current employees, both said that would be too intrusive unless there were strong reasons to suspect wrongdoing.
“If we have some disciplinary issue come to light, we would probably want to look at those things,” McHale said.
Hanover Area Superintendent Andrew Kuhl said he was not involved in any full job searches yet since taking the post last summer, but to his knowledge web searches are not part of the process.
“It’s something I would discuss with our board as we move toward some hirings,” Kuhl said. “It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.”
But there are obvious problems with web searches that don’t exist with official police checks, he added.
“For some people, the stuff that’s damning may be behind locks and passwords,” Kuhl said. And if you find something a candidate did in their late teens and years later they are a legitimate candidate, he added, “Do you hold that against them?”
Pittston Area Human Resources Director Keven Booth said the district does not do web searches and has not talked about it. “But in the wake of this incident, it may be something we do as we move forward.”
“It’s a touchy area in that we don’t know the context of a lot of the pictures” found online, Booth added. “You may have something like a person appears to be drinking an alcoholic beverage, but how do you know what it really is? I’d rather rely on the state police.”
Northwest Area Superintendent Ronald Grevera had similar concerns with using the web to check up on candidates or teachers. “It may be an idea to start doing it in the future,” Grevera said, but “just because something is out there on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Pennsylvania School Boards Association Senior Director of Communications Steve Robinson said that, while his organization helps districts draw up hiring policies, it does not address the notion of web searches.
“The policies we help draw up generally relate to the laws the district must follow,” Robinson said. “There is nothing in the law about this one way or the other.
“We would recommend before doing something like this that school boards work closely with their personnel director and solicitor to make sure whatever procedures they adopt are legal.”
Dallas Superintendent Frank Galicki was blunt as to why his district does not do web checks.
“If we had enough money to fund a human resource department, and our governor was friendly to education, and we didn’t have to cut non-instructional positions, we’d have someone do that,” he said. “But right now it’s not economically feasible.”