Bad Checks

Sure you can ferret out the slimeballs in our midst? Guess again if you're relying on standard background searches in Texas

When asked about all the omissions in the system, DPS spokesman Mike Lesko responded, "The quality of the database is strictly up to what's reported."

What he didn't say was "Counties need to get their shit together and start submitting their info."

Public users who rely on the Texas DPS database might be getting their $3 worth, but that's about it. And it's not much better for school districts that use the database as the only source when screening applicants.

Doug Boehm

In February and March, the Houston Press made public information requests to 63 local school districts, asking for, among other things, each district's policy concerning background checks (see "Needling the Haystack," May 18). Fifty-seven districts responded and said that yes, they indeed do some kind of background check on all employees. (Of the districts that never responded, North Forest made news earlier this year when a janitor with an extensive criminal past was accused of sexually assaulting a student.)

The Press followed up with the responding districts and learned that at least 17 of them rely solely on the Texas DPS database for background checks. They are Brazos, Brazosport, Clear Creek, Columbia-Brazoria, Conroe, Dayton, Devers, East Chambers, Galveston, Hitchcock, Huffman, Liberty, New Caney, Santa Fe, Sweeny, Tomball and Willis.

These school districts have it better than your average Little League coach, since they're eligible for secured access to the database and can see any arrest record that's ever been reported, regardless of whether the outcome is also in the system. This access is meant to tip them off to applicants who might need a closer look, but there's no telling how many arrests never make it to the DPS.

A 2002 audit of 30 counties by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, an independent advisory agency, found more than 88,000 arrests and subsequent dispositions that weren't in the system. Many older arrests will probably never get reported, as counties slow to embrace the digital age are too busy dealing with current convictions to get around to cataloging past ones.

But that's not even the half of it. The Texas DPS database has records from only this state, which means any school district relying solely on it wouldn't learn about a criminal conviction in another part of the country.

In other words, you could murder a kid in Louisiana, do your time, move to Galveston and apply for a job as a janitor in an elementary school -- no worries.

So what's the alternative?

Twenty-six local school districts, including Houston, Cy-Fair, Katy and Friendswood, told us they use Safe Schools for background checks. Founded by a former Dallas ISD administrator, Safe Schools cross-references credit reports and checks criminal records for every place an applicant has lived, leapfrogging the problem of counties not reporting to the DPS.

When the program was started in the late '90s, many school districts weren't doing any background checks at all, says Mark Myers, a spokesman for First Advantage, the company that later acquired Safe Schools. Of the districts that were checking, he says, "99 percent of them were only doing the Texas Department of Public Safety check."

Some 175 Texas school districts now use Safe Schools. Myers says it's one of the best ways to supplement a DPS check, although he does acknowledge there's no "100-percent, iron-clad method" of finding every criminal conviction in the nation.

"You could have a criminal record in a location where you never had a residence," he says. "If I went out this summer and got convicted of assault and battery in Las Vegas, that's never going to be identified by a social security trace."

Another wrinkle appears with deferred adjudication, a form of probation designed to give offenders a second chance by not putting convictions on their records. And this brings us back to Timothy Williford, the guy who got busted 12 years ago for stealing a video camera in Gatesville.

One morning last October, 16-year-old Heather Hedges went into her parents' bedroom and said someone was looking through her window, according to a report filed by her father. Her dad went outside, saw the family cat and assumed the rascal had startled his daughter. But five minutes later Heather was back in his room, crying and saying, "I saw his hands, his eyes and something shiny like a telescope or something." Rick Hedges went back outside and this time saw a large man coming from the side of the house and walking toward the street. When queried as to what he was doing, the man mumbled, "Nothing," hopped in his Suburban and took off, but not before Rick memorized his license plate.

Heather went to classes at Cinco Ranch High School later that day, unaware the alleged peeper, one Timothy Williford, worked in the school as a special education teacher and football coach. Williford eventually resigned when the dots were connected. He was charged with disorderly conduct for the incident. A further charge of tampering with a government record was later added, since he had declined to mention the Gatesville incident when he applied for the job.

But here's the thing: Before being hired by Katy ISD, Williford tried to get a job at Fort Bend ISD and was denied after district officials found the Gatesville arrest in the secure portion of the Texas DPS database. (No record of the arrest shows up in the public portion, the part used by sports coaches and various employers, because Coryell County apparently never reported the final outcome of the case to the DPS.) Katy ISD didn't know about his arrest, though, since the district relies solely on Safe Schools, which found the record but was prohibited from reporting it.

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