FCPS expands background checks for employees in wake of ex-counselor’s conviction

The Fairfax County Public Schools administrative center in Merrifield (file photo)

Going forward, all Fairfax County Public Schools workers will be required to undergo regular background checks and notify the school system of any arrests while they’re employed.

The expanded background check policies will be implemented after an investigation last year found “systemic gaps” in the hiring process, FCPS announced yesterday (Tuesday).

The independent investigation was prompted by the discovery that former Glasgow Middle School counselor Darren Thornton had remained employed for months after he was convicted of soliciting prostitution from a minor in Chesterfield County.

Effective since March 12, the new regulation is part of a “continuing effort to provide safe schools and workplaces for all students and staff,” FCPS said.

All employees, including temporary, hourly and substitute staff, will be reviewed through the National Sex Offender Registry, starting this month. This summer, anyone hired before August 2006 will also need to make an appointment where their fingerprints can be scanned for review by the Virginia State Police and FBI.

Employees hired between Aug. 1, 2006 and July 1, 2022 already have digital fingerprint scans on file, so those will be automatically resubmitted, FCPS says.

All employees are now required to disclose to the FCPS Office of Equity and Employee Relations (EER) any arrests for felonies, misdemeanors or other “acts that impact a person’s ability to work” that occurred after they were hired.

FCPS says its Department of Human Resources will start submitting all employees for criminal record background checks “periodically to monitor for unreported criminal record activity.”

“Additional types of background checks may also be used for periodic monitoring,” FCPS said. “Not every arrest would lead to action; however, a barrier crime, felony or a crime that impacts a person’s ability to work may have cause for dismissal.”

FCPS Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid told families on Aug. 18 that Thornton had been fired after officials were notified of his March 11 conviction and sentencing, which called for supervised probation in place of a suspended five-year jail sentence.

Thornton was originally arrested in November 2020, but Chesterfield police later said their emails alerting FCPS to the sex crime charge bounced back. The 50-year-old Mechanicsville resident was arrested for a second time in a separate sting operation on June 9, 2022.

After he was terminated by FCPS, Virginia State Police arrested Thornton for failing to provide complete and accurate information to the state’s sex offender registry.

In addition to indicating that it will require regular background checks, the Fairfax County School Board said following the independent investigation in September that it will make changes to its processes for verifying licensure, documenting employee leave and dismissing workers convicted of certain crimes.

David Walrod, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, expressed support for the new background check policies, stating that the Thornton case showed the limits of relying solely on law enforcement for notification of crimes by employees.

“Ensuring that employees have a clean criminal record at the start their career is important but ensuring that employees maintain clean criminal records is an important part of ensuring the safety of our students and staff,” Walrod said in a statement. “I commend the district for taking this step, and I am glad to see that Dr. Reid has taken decisive steps to ensure this happens.”

Spurred by the Thornton case, the General Assembly passed a law last month requiring all public school divisions in Virginia to designate a contact for law enforcement and courts who will manage reports related to any school employee arrests or convictions for felonies. Sponsored by state Sen. Scott Surovell, the measure will take effect on July 1.

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