May 23, 2023 9:00 AM
When a bill proposing a mandatory screening to stop sex abusers from working for public schools sailed through the New York legislature, no one blinked an eye. Sixteen years later, however, despite repeated proposals and the State Senate unanimously voting in its favor, no similar bill mandating the screening of prospective private school employees has become law.
Currently in New York, all public school employees must be fingerprinted as part of a criminal background check to help ensure they are suited to work with children. Advocates hope that despite the bill’s repeated failure to become law, this year will finally see the law expanded to private schools, so that those with certain criminal histories, such as a history of child sex abuse, aren’t hired to work with children.
Elliot Pasik, the president of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, who lobbied for the bill to be first introduced in 2007, said the very existence of the law would serve as a deterrent for those with problematic histories from applying for school jobs in the first place.
“When told of the fingerprint requirement, some potential job applicants with serious criminal histories will undoubtedly realize that they will likely be rejected for employment, and not apply for the job,” Pasik wrote.
“It’s a way of ensuring people with troubled backgrounds can be identified,” said Asher Lovy, who worked on the bill. Lovy is director of Za’akah, an advocacy organization combating child sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Some private schools already require fingerprinting for prospective employees, but according to data Pasik obtained through FOIL, only eight Jewish private schools have submitted job applicant fingerprints to the state education department for background checks since 2007: four Modern Orthodox schools, two Conservative schools, and two special education schools.
The bill was introduced this February for the seventh time, with bipartisan support. In April, it passed the senate education committee unanimously and was sent to the finance committee. The assembly education committee has not voted on it yet. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on June 8.
In 2007, the first year the bill came before the legislature, it passed the senate almost unanimously, but died in the assembly. In 2019, the bill passed the senate unanimously, but never reached a vote in the assembly.
At the time, the bill was part of a group of bills related to the Child Victims Act, which extended statutes of limitations for prosecuting cases of child sex abuse. Not all the bills were successful, but the Child Victims Act passed despite vehement opposition from Agudath Israel of America, a Haredi lobbying group.
At the time, Agudah’s stated concerns about the CVA were potential claims over events that had already occurred, rather than the prevention of further harm. In a press release after the law was passed, it worried that its provisions could cause “the unprecedented ability to revive decades-old claims in civil suits” which would “jeopardize the ongoing viability of schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of communities like ours.”
Though no representatives have openly raised concerns about the fingerprinting proposal, the bill is again in limbo. If a vote is not taken before the end of the legislative session on June 8, it will fail for yet another year – despite no public opposition.
Agudah lobbied state lawmakers about the bill earlier this year, according to lobbying disclosures, but those disclosures don’t indicate whether or not they support the legislation, and Agudah didn’t respond to calls and emails from Shtetl.
James Cultrara, a lobbyist for Catholic schools, told Shtetl they support the bill. “The NYS Catholic Conference supports the legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Nily Rozic and Senator John Mannion not only because it is needed in our efforts to protect children but also to better ensure public trust,” Cultrara said.
Michael Salamon, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and sexual abuse treatments and works with Haredi patients, said the fingerprinting bill is a good start, even if it can’t solve the entire problem on its own. “I think it’s important that we know, at the very least, who’s working with our children,” Salamon said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal to get fingerprinted. I just think it’s a reasonable thing to do.”