Countywide

Investigation into former Glasgow MS counselor finds “systematic issues” in FCPS hiring, firing processes

Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools will require all workers to undergo “regular” background checks after a now-terminated counselor remained employed at Lincolnia’s Glasgow Middle School despite being convicted of a sex crime.

The new policy is one of several changes announced yesterday (Tuesday) by FCPS Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid in response to an independent investigation into why the school system continued to employ Darren Thornton after he was convicted on March 11 of soliciting prostitution from a minor in Chesterfield County.

Conducted by outside legal counsel, the investigation found that Chesterfield officials didn’t notify FCPS of Thornton’s arrest on Nov. 19 or about his subsequent conviction, according to a summary of the report.

The Chesterfield Police Department has said that its emails to FCPS bounced back as undeliverable after ending up in a spam folder.

Once informed about the conviction, the Fairfax County School Board “acted without delay,” FCPS says. Reid told the community on Aug. 18 that she and the board had ordered an outside, independent investigation into what happened.

The investigation found systematic human resources issues related to hiring, licensure, leave, dismissal, and resignations, according to FCPS. Among the issues are a pattern of suspending employees without pay after felony convictions, rather than “consistently and promptly dismissing” them.

“These have been exacerbated by factors such as significant leadership churn,” FCPS wrote in the summary. “As we plan to work with identifying and implementing strong systems of accountability, it will be important that we implement these actions with fidelity and have frequent accountability checks.”

Reid said in her message to families that she has “begun to take appropriate disciplinary actions” but didn’t detail which personnel are being disciplined or how.

Reid shared results of the investigation with Glasgow parents at a community meeting yesterday, but said that the full report won’t be made public “because parts of it are protected by attorney-client privilege,” WTOP reported.

In addition to requiring regular background checks of current employees, Reid said FCPS will add more steps to the hiring process, including reference checks with former employers and more timely verifications of their licensure status. It will also seek to dismiss and get licenses revoked for any employees convicted of “barrier crimes.”

The school system is also looking at joining the FBI’s Rap Back program, which notifies employers if a worker’s fingerprints are entered into its database in connection with criminal activity. However, FCPS says it won’t be able to enroll in the program until it’s made available in Virginia.

Reid says FCPS is working with state lawmakers and federal, state and local law enforcement “to ensure timely and robust information sharing and notice regarding employee arrests and convictions.” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and School Board Chair Rachna Sizemore-Heizer sent a letter to the county’s General Assembly delegation in August proposing a centralized, statewide notification system.

When asked for comment on FCPS’ policy changes, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, an FCPS employee union, said it “is still researching the proposed steps prior to formulating a response.”

The Fairfax Education Association, another FCPS employees’ union, said having entry-level background checks is an “understandable” step to help keep students safe, but the FBI Rap Back program could raise more concerns.

“The reporting agencies should be held responsible for contacting school systems when a crime has been committed,” FEA President Leslie Houston wrote in a statement. “Doing a background check is very different than creating a database where someone may not have been convicted but was fingerprinted. We must think of the constitutional rights of educators and staff.”

A jury found Thornton guilty of soliciting prostitution from a minor over 16 on March 11. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but the sentence was suspended in favor of five years of probation and indefinite court supervision, according to Chesterfield County Circuit Court records.

Chesterfield police arrested Thornton for a separate prostitution charge on June 9, and Virginia State Police arrested him in August on charges of falsifying information to the state’s sex offender registry. He appeared in court for the June 9 arrest yesterday.

Reid’s full letter to the Glasgow community is below:

As promised, I am following up with you on the situation regarding the independent investigation that has now been completed into the circumstances regarding a counselor who was employed at Glasgow Middle School.

The School Board acted without delay once notified of the conviction and promptly directed me to initiate an independent, external investigation. I want to personally thank you for your patience and understanding while this investigation by independent outside legal counsel was conducted.

Below and at this link, you will find a summary of the areas of improvement and the actions that we will be taking in the coming weeks. These do not include personnel actions, which I have already taken and will be taking.

  • FCPS has begun work to collaborate with the Virginia legislature and our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to ensure timely and robust information sharing and notice regarding employee arrests and convictions.
  • This case also raised several widespread, systemic issues regarding how Virginia handles information-sharing on the arrest and/or conviction of school employees. FCPS will explore enrolling in the FBI Rap Back program as soon as it is available to FCPS through the Commonwealth of Virginia, which supports information sharing between jurisdictions, between the state and local jurisdictions, as well as across state lines and from national criminal databases. The School Board will be advocating through their interagency partners for these changes to happen quickly.
  • Current employees will be required to undergo regular background checks over the course of their employment with FCPS.
  • Additional steps will be required for prospective new hires, including a reference check from the central office of their previous employer, more robust support documentation, and information sharing on personnel between jurisdictions.
  • FCPS will improve its licensure verification process for all prospective employees. We will also be requiring timely verification that an employee’s license remains in good standing, and timely licensure submissions to the Virginia Department of Education.
  • The school division will improve processes to ensure employee leave and absences are documented in a timely way, and verified and monitored. Responsible administrators and staff will undergo professional development regarding reporting leave and their obligations to ensure that payroll is accurate.
  • The school division will not accept resignations from employees who are convicted of barrier crimes and will promptly initiate dismissal and license revocation petitions for these employees.

You have my commitment that we will be taking action to correct the systemic issues noted in the summary and I have begun to take appropriate disciplinary actions as a result of this investigation.

Please know that we are committed to doing everything possible to ensure our students and staff are safe and thriving in our schools, and will be working hard to restore the trust in our community.