The Mackinac Center for Public Policy noted in this week’s Michigan Education Digest that a circuit court judge has sealed data on employees in Michigan public schools who have been convicted of some 4,600 criminal offenses. The Michigan Education Association union requested that the court prevent the state Department of Education from responding to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by media outlets seeking the names and schools of employees known by the state to have a criminal history. Until the court and state government can work out whether parents will have this essential safety information, parents still have at least one option to access certain criminal background information.

The union is in effect denying parents the right to know whether the schools to which their children are assigned are safe from employees who may have a criminal record. Certainly recidivism is not the rule for every person convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Caution should be exercised, too, because mistakenly including an innocent person on the list could have a disastrous effect on his or her career.

However, parents should be able to know the backgrounds of those coming into contact with their children. Such basic knowledge is especially important when parents do not have the freedom to direct their children’s education in the most basic way, by choosing the school their kids attend.

It is not yet clear whether the court’s order will allow the state education department to release background information on employees even to the districts that employ them. And we won’t know until Friday, Feb. 10 whether the release prohibition the union has requested will be permanent.

In the meantime, parents still have the option of accessing the Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry database through the Michigan State Police to find out whether one of the 100 sex offenders reported to be working in Michigan public schools is employed in their children’s school. Users can search the database by zip code or by name and estimated age. Search results will include essential identifying information, including name, height, weight, hair color, home address and the nature of the sex offense conviction. The record also includes a photograph. Parents and districts can check the zip-code-sorted list against the names of known school employees. The extensive details provided by the State Police’s database can help prevent an erroneous accusation of a school employee having this kind of criminal history.

We need to be concerned about protecting the reputations of innocent school employees. We also need to do all we can to ensure the safety of children in Michigan public schools.

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Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.