School officials concerned over state-required policy

Lindbergh, Mehlville officials voice concerns about policy

By Kari Williams

The Missouri School Boards’ Association is encouraging school boards to consult with their attorneys before approving a state-required policy in regard to notifying other school districts about sexual misconduct allegations against former employees.

The policy is mandated by Senate Bill 54, or SB 54, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. Section 162.068 of the measure states that by July 1, “every school district must adopt a written policy on information that the district may provide about former employees to other public schools.”

It also states if a school district had an employee “for whom there was a finding of substantiated from a Children’s Division investigation,” it is required to disclose the findings if contacted for a reference.

Additionally, districts can be liable for damages if a former employee’s job involved contact with children and sexual misconduct allegations were made toward the employee — and the allegations are substantiated by the state’s Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board — and the district releases the employee or allows him or her to resign without disclosing the allegations to other districts requesting information.

Vicki VanLaere, then-assistant superintendent of Human Resources, told the Mehlville Board of Education at its May 17 meeting she “fully expect(s)” the policies to be tweaked before being brought back to the board at its June 21 meeting for a second reading.

“There’s a lot of consternation and questioning about (the measure) just because Missouri law says we have to do this, what happens if it’s tried in federal?” she said. “So those are things that we’re going to work out.”

VanLaere, who is no longer with the district, said the law only applies if a former employee seeks employment at a Missouri public school because it is state law. She also said the policy is “very vague.”

“The way it’s written, only one person is exempt if it goes to trial from disclosing any of this information, and that would be either the superintendent or his or her designee,” she said.

Rick Francis, Lindbergh assistant superintendent of personnel services, told the Call district officials need to define who the superintendent will designate in regard to giving references to former employees.

“We don’t want anyone giving a reference and not knowing that there would be something filed that they should have shared,” Francis said, “because there’s some severe penalties for not passing on information to another public school.”

Mehlville Board of Education Secretary Larry Felton, also governmental relations chair for MSBA Region 7, told the Call his concerns are the implications if an allegation is proven to be false and protection provided in the MSBA policy for the “whistleblower.”

Felton said those are issues the district has to “resolve or at least talk about with our local attorney and perhaps MSBA.”

When MSBA is unsure of legal precedents, it recommends a school district consult with its attorneys, according to Felton.

“I’m sure they have some trepidation, but I will talk to them before the June 21 meeting to see if there’s feedback coming from other districts,” he said.

The reference copy board members received states, “MSBA is particularly disturbed … because it appears the district may be required to disclose to potential employers allegations that have not been substantiated. This is an area of huge liability, not just for defamation, but also for a constitutional claim in state or federal court that the district violated the employee’s liberty interest in his or her reputation without first providing appropriate due process.”

Lindbergh Board of Education President Vic Lenz told the Call there is concern that the statute provides immunity for employees if they forward information to other school districts, but not immunity to the school district itself. He also said there is concern that immunity is not provided to school districts on a federal level.

Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost told the Call the main concern with the policy is, regardless of an investigation’s outcome, allegations or accusations of sexual misconduct by a former employee must be reported to another school district.

“… And then what even makes it more difficult, and while we have to follow policy, there’s no immunity to the district for claims that would be filed in a federal court …,” Knost said. “And that’s where it just seems a little gray.”

Knost said Lisa Counts, Mehlville assistant superintendent for supervision of schools, is working with district attorneys, and the district hopes to have something “that is deemed appropriate by (its) attorneys and acceptable per the Senate bill” to present at the June 21 board meeting.

Francis said Lindbergh administrators’ concerns with the policy is the district will have to be more careful providing references to other districts.

District officials will talk with employees regarding the changes, said Francis, who is retiring this summer. Francis and his replacement, Brian McKenney, attended a St. Louis regional human resources meeting June 6 — after the Call went to press — to “see what other schools are going to do in regard to reference checks.”

“We have a local group of HR professionals that get together because we share, many times, the same issues …,” Francis said, “and so it’s a meeting for us … (to get together) and talk about this policy because a lot of times we’ll come up with a better solution if we put our heads together.”

Though the policy states it must be adopted by July 1, Knost said there have been examples where legislation required policies, but there has been “some forgiveness as people try to iron out the details.”

“There were a lot of question marks about this Senate bill, and if it was unconstitutional and so on and so forth …,” he said. “As of right now, we feel that we’re required to have something in place by July, and we’re working toward that.”

The Lindbergh Board of Education will meet Tuesday, June 12, and the Mehlville Board of Education will meet June 21.