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Sue Carlton: Arrestees working at schools: You okay with that?

If the worst happens, everyone will say:

How did we not see this coming?

And, why didn't somebody do something?

Already, these are not happy times for the people who run the Hillsborough County school district. Weeks after a coach complained to an assistant principal that aides who were supposed to be watching special needs students mostly just hung out in the bleachers, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome left a gym class and drowned in a pond. School officials are also in the thick of a serious lawsuit after a girl in a wheelchair started choking on a school bus and neither the bus driver nor an aide called 911. She died at the hospital the next day.

Given these crises, a recent report about a program that has put people with multiple arrests on school grounds doing landscaping work probably seems minor.

Unless the worst happens.

In an eyebrow-raiser of a story, the Times' Marlene Sokol and John Martin detailed a cost-saving effort that outsources lawn mowing and other grounds work at schools. The program also has the noble goal of helping out small businesses.

It's notable, however, that Daphne Jones, a woman with a history of bankruptcy, tax liens and Social Security fraud, runs a company awarded those landscaping contracts.

Also notable: Jones made headlines in 2007 when she was arrested on felony charges of abusing or neglecting 18 people at a group home she ran. The elderly and disabled residents made unreliable witnesses, and she pled to a single misdemeanor with adjudication withheld.

Her business has serviced dozens of school sites. The Times reported nearly half the workers she tried to hire were rejected because they could not pass muster under the Jessica Lunsford Act. The law to protect us from dangerous criminals meant anyone who had been convicted of crimes including rape or murder couldn't be hired.

But one person who did pass had 27 arrests on less serious charges.

Another, 23.

School officials rightly point out that their standards for screening are more stringent than those covered by the Lunsford Act, since they also bar people with felony drug convictions and misdemeanors that include a sex act. They say arrests are not convictions. Even 27 of them.

This is not to say someone with minor charges doesn't deserve a second chance, and a job.

But it turns out most of those who got badges that allow them to work at schools had actual convictions, too.

And here's a detail to make school officials sit up and take notice: One worker who did prison time for aggravated assault with a weapon and was denied a badge told the Times he worked for months for Jones' company anyway by borrowing someone else's badge. And it wasn't the first time. A previous company lost the contract because badges were similarly misused.

And are you okay with this?

School officials say their standards help keep potentially dangerous people off school campuses, and that they are effectively barred from judging a bidder on moral grounds. They say their hands are tied. They say they're looking out for costs.

So who's looking out for kids?

Rules are rules — until something bad happens, and then from Tallahassee on down, everyone scrambles to change them.

Sue Carlton: Arrestees working at schools: You okay with that? 11/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 5:15pm]
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