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Fairfax Co. schools look to FBI program to help with expanded employee background checks

Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid met with families at Glasgow Middle School, to discuss the results of FCPS' independent investigation into the Darren Thornton case. (7News)
Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid met with families at Glasgow Middle School, to discuss the results of FCPS' independent investigation into the Darren Thornton case. (7News)
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7News is learning more about the FBI program that Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) hope to tap into, as the district looks to implement more frequent background checks for FCPS employees.

"A more frequent background check I think gives all of us a little more reassurance," FCPS Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid said during a Tuesday meeting with families at Glasgow Middle School.

That's the school where Darren Thornton, a convicted sex offender, remained employed as a counselor after Chesterfield County Police failed to notify FCPS of his November 2020 arrest for a sex crime with a minor. The police department has said it tried to make that notification via email but did not realize until August that those emails had bounced back to a police department spam folder and were never delivered to the school system.

RELATED: Police email about school counselor's 2020 sex crime arrest was never delivered to FCPS

Thornton passed a pre-employment background check when he was hired by FCPS, but his arrest and subsequent conviction for solicitation of prostitution from a minor happened when he was already working as a counselor at Glasgow Middle School. FCPS fired Thornton in August, shortly after Reid was made aware of his criminal history.

In recent weeks, the controversy has led some parents to push for annual background checks of FCPS employees. On Tuesday, Reid revealed that she also wants regular background checks for school system employees, based on the results of FCPS' independent investigation into the Thornton case.

"Current employees will be required to undergo regular background checks over the course of their employment with FCPS," Reid wrote in a letter updating families about the results of that independent investigation and her corrective action plan.

To read details of FCPS' corrective action plan, click here.

SEE ALSO: FCPS superintendent reveals 'corrective action' plan after Glasgow Middle counselor case

The question now is how to best conduct regular background checks in a school system with more than 24,000 full-time employees.

Reid said some of that work is already underway.

"One of the things we've done, we have cross-checked current employees with sex offender lists or adjudication lists," Reid told 7News on Tuesday. "So we are doing that type of background checking."

But, she wants to go even further --- in light of the scandal surrounding Thornton's employment with FCPS.

"I think the most important part of all of this is making sure each and every one of our students and staff are safe moving forward," Reid said. "Making sure we've taken a close look at the entire situation and identify those risk factors and create recommendations and action plans to remedy those, so we never have a situation like this happen again in Fairfax County."

The superintendent estimates it would cost FCPS about $2 million a year to do background checks on all staff. That's where she thinks the FBI's 'Rap Back' program could make a big difference in terms of both the quality and cost of the background checks.

"To background check the number of employees we have would be roughly $2 million annually, and with the FBI Rap Back program, we would not incur that level of cost, so it's something we are hoping to partner on," Reid told Glasgow Middle School parents during Tuesday's meeting.

On the FBI website, 'Rap Back' is described as a service that "assists agencies in the continuous evaluation of their personnel even after the original fingerprint search has been processed". Essentially, the program provides participating agencies with real-time notification and updates if one of their employees is arrested.

"The type of background checking I think that our families are coming to expect would be the checks that the FBI's 'Rap Back' program does," Reid said. "Because some of the products we can purchase, even for $2 million a year, given our employee numbers, don't necessarily have access to some of the criminal background records that we would want to be checking."

Before FCPS can take part in that FBI program, Reid said Virginia must first enroll at the state level and agree to partner with the FBI.

"We really encourage the Commonwealth to consider the FBI 'Rap Back' program," Reid said. "A number of other states have participated in that program, which would allow every school division within the Commonwealth to have regular and routine background checks."

7News did some checking and found the State of Maryland is already enrolled in the FBI's 'Rap Back' program. The Transportation Security Administration and Dulles International Airport also use the program to help with background checks for employees.

"I'd like to see Virginia participate in the FBI program that was referenced," said FCPS parent Jennifer White, who attended Tuesday's meeting at Glasgow Middle School. "We can't have people take advantage by trying to go from school to school and fall through the cracks."

RELATED: Parents call for annual background checks after FCPS counselor arrest

The Fairfax County Parents Association, which previously called on FCPS to begin conducting annual criminal background checks for all employees who have direct one-on-one interaction with students, issued a new statement on Wednesday that said in part:

"We appreciate that [Superintendent Reid ] listened to concerns from parents, which included strong support for enhancing the background check system and its frequency. We also appreciate the improved safety protocols that are designed to ensure that, among other things, those convicted of barrier crimes are not employed within the school system. Parents continue to look forward to future opportunities to provide perspective on ways to make FCPS a stronger, better school system focused on providing a high-quality education to every student."

Reid said she, along with members of the Fairfax County school board, will now advocate for Virginia to partner with the FBI on the 'Rap Back' program.

SEE ALSO: Fairfax Co. leaders want 'more centralized' Va. reporting system after FCPS counselor case

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"Our board is working hard with elected officials to perhaps make that a reality sooner than later," Reid said.

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