Further study: verification of educational background

GREEN BAY, Wis. (NBC 26) – Every teacher in the state of Wisconsin goes through a mandatory background check before getting an educator license.

But Appleton-based private eye Julie Russell sometimes says that process isn’t enough.

“We did some investigations where we found something,” Russell said. “We call the [teaching] candidate and his first response is “Well, I got my license”. Not everything can be bad. My answer is ‘but this…'”

Some local school districts also hire detective agencies to research the backgrounds of prospective teachers. Russell co-founded DIVERSIFIED investigations, the company used by public schools in the Green Bay area. She says it’s not always easy to find a person’s criminal history.

“It’s really an investigation,” she said. “We’re going to compare and contrast the data that we get. And we’re going to render a product and say, in our best due diligence, ‘this is what we know about this person based on the background that we were doing.'”

Russell says the purpose of vetting is to prevent negligent hires. She says only about one percent of background investigations result in serious red flags.

“There’s a level of indicators that say you shouldn’t be alone with kids or you shouldn’t be responsible for arresting people with handcuffs and a gun,” Russell said.

But there is a challenge. It is impossible to know whether a teacher or employee will commit a crime, regardless of the past.

“There’s no way to predict future behavior if you don’t have indicators of past behavior,” Russell said.

The former Appleton Police Department sergeant says investigators are doing everything they can, but it’s possible a crime could go unnoticed.

Russell says some locations where crimes are being committed can be difficult to track.

“We wouldn’t have any reason or connection to say they were there,” Russell said. “And if that doesn’t meet a national request…then yes, there are gaps. Absolutely, there are gaps.”

According to the seasoned investigator, a person must have their fingerprints to be tracked in certain cases. Russell says the first step in the process includes verifying personal information before searching local court records. Some crimes can take months to appear on a traceable database.

Baird Elementary School teacher David Villareal was arrested on Wednesday and faces possible sexual assault charges. The Department of Public Instruction routinely vets educators like Villareal before granting teaching licenses.

According to the DPI, these background checks do not include additional screening processes that individual schools may have in place for new recruits.

The state says the “primary objective” is to ensure that each candidate does not pose a threat to the safety of young students across the state. The state requires each prospective teacher to complete a questionnaire and provide documentation of past misconduct or criminal behavior.

According to the DPI, “The background check is performed individually by the DPI at the time the application is submitted. Each decision is based on the unique facts associated with each application.”

Villareal’s arrest marks the second time in two years that a staff member at the Green Bay school has been charged with sexually assaulting a student. In 2019, Courtney Roznowski was charged with misconduct as an employee of Southwest High School.

The Neenah School Board passed a measure in 2018 requiring any volunteer or chaperone to submit to a background check.

Carol C. Reed