James M. Singleton Charter School failed to conduct criminal background checks for some of its employees and employed someone ineligible to work at the school because of a criminal conviction, according to a Wednesday letter to the school from the NOLA Public Schools district warning that the school’s practices on background checks violated state law. The district letter also said that the Louisiana State Police could not confirm the validity of a number of background checks in the school’s files.

The district issued a separate letter on March 10 citing KIPP New Orleans Schools for employing someone ineligible to work in a school because of a past criminal conviction. 

Schools are legally required to complete employee background checks to ensure they do not hire someone who’s been convicted of or pleaded no contest to one or more of a list of crimes outlined in state law. Many of the violations are serious or involve children, such as murder, assault, kidnapping, child desertion and carnal knowledge of a juvenile. Others involve prostitution or manufacture or distribution of drugs.

On Tuesday, a spokesman with the New Orleans Police Department told The Lens that the incidents are related but did not elaborate further.

“We’ve been advised that the principal of James Singleton School was instructed by school district leadership to contact the NOPD this morning regarding this issue,” he wrote. “We’ve also been advised that both of these matters are related. No other information is currently available.”

It’s not clear whether the letters identify two separate employees or one employee working for both KIPP and Singleton. Neither the KIPP nor the Singleton employee is identified in the letters. And the letters did not say what crimes the employee or employees were convicted of to make them ineligible for school employment. 

The employee with a prior conviction was the only problem related to background checks that the district identified at KIPP, the city’s largest charter network. But at Singleton, run by the Dryades YMCA, the background check issue appears to run deeper, according to the letter issued by district Chief School Accountability Officer Kevin George.

Questions on authenticity of background checks

Singleton was first warned in mid-December for failing to complete background checks on all employees. The school then completed the background checks and on March 4, George went to the school to review them.

That’s when he found additional problems. Along with the ineligible employee, George noted 10 background checks at the Central City school could not be authenticated by the Louisiana State Police. 

Five had duplicate “audit codes,” which should be unique to an individual. It’s unclear if the latter issue rests with the school or State Police. The State Police did not respond to a request for comment. 

George also noted three background checks had “an incorrect State Police signature” and “five documents incorrectly indicate that the applicant did not have a rap sheet and one document had an audit code assigned to another individual by the State Police.” 

“Finally, the State Police could not find records of background checks being completed on the documented dates,” for several employees, he wrote.

District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the schools are taking care of the issues.

“The employee in question has been terminated and NOLA-PS has encouraged both school organizations to contact law enforcement for additional guidance,” she wrote in an email. “NOLA-PS is working with KIPP and Singleton so that they can improve their hiring procedures to ensure the best educators are teaching our public school students.”

On Tuesday morning, Erika Mann, the head of school at Singleton provided an emailed statement. “We are working with NOLA Public School System to resolve any outstanding issues.”

KIPP CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said the charter group could not comment on the employee due to employee privacy but added that KIPP disputes the findings in the warning letter.  

“We can state that we do not agree with the issuance of a Level 2 Notice of Non-Compliance by NOLA-PS,” she wrote in an email. “We do not believe they accurately captured the issues in their Notice letter and do not believe they properly followed their policies in issuing the Notice.  We have requested that the Notice be retracted and are awaiting a decision.”

The background check process has been an issue for other New Orleans charter schools in the past. In 2015, years before the latest warning letters, a state audit identified problems with Singleton’s background checks. For a handful of years, auditors knocked Collegiate Academies for failing to track whether background checks had been completed on all employees. At the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, a background check failed to show an employee had been previously accused of misappropriating funds in another district. That employee was then investigated for thefts at NOMMA. 

‘Revisiting who we think should not be allowed to work with children’

Civil rights attorney Victor Jones — who previously served as the plaintiffs’ attorney in a long-running suit against NOLA Public Schools and the state Department of Education over special education — said the district must ensure charter schools follow background check procedures. But Jones also cautioned the limitations of the state background check law, noting it precludes people who’ve had their violations expunged. He called the list of crimes outlined in state law “truly non-exhaustive.” 

“Courts have upheld BESE policies that provide for the revocation, suspension, or denial of a teaching certificate for individuals who have been convicted of any felony offense beyond those listed in R.S. 15:5871.1,” he wrote in an email.

But he also said that not all prospective employees with convictions on their records should be shut out of working for schools.

“Schools do need to do a better job of complying with background checks on existing law but there should also be a conversation at the state level to not be so punitive to formerly incarcerated individuals while keeping children’s safety in mind,” Jones said, noting the laws can cause issues for parents who want to volunteer in schools.  

“Just from a policy standpoint there needs to be greater effort in revisiting who we think should not be allowed to work with children. I know anecdotally of some instances where there have been individuals who were incarcerated with matters having nothing to do with child welfare or were nonviolent but because of their felony status are not allowed to be employed in schools,” he said. 

Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Ted Beasley said the issue at KIPP and Singleton are not a state matter. 

“Singleton is authorized by NOLA Public Schools, therefore we are not able to enact any accountability measures,” he wrote in an email. “That would be handled by NOLA Public Schools as they hold the Operating Agreement with Singleton.”

The warnings are included in a district accountability report which will be presented at the Orleans Parish School Board’s committee meeting on Tuesday afternoon.