City looking at expanding background checks

Published on Tuesday, 3 June 2014 23:06 - Written by Kelly Gooch, kgooch@tylerpaper.com

The city of Tyler has decided to implement a new policy on background checks for contracted instructors at Glass Recreation Center after finding out a registered sex offender was teaching a class there.

The city is considering expanding the policy to contracted instructors at the Tyler Public Library and Tyler Senior Center.

The instructor at Glass Recreation Center, 31, has taught a Body Combat fitness class. He was sentenced in 2003 to four years in prison for sexual assault of a child, according to public records. He was 19 at the time of the offense and his risk level is listed “low.” The female victim was 14. 

Tyler Parks and Recreation Director Stephanie Rollings said the city was made aware of the situation last week and subsequently suspended the man’s class until further notice.

She said the city also did background checks on contracted instructors at Glass Recreation Center and continues to investigate and receive additional information on the Body Combat instructor’s background.

Ms. Rollings called it an “unfortunate situation,” saying people have lost weight and become motivated through the instructor and his class.

The instructor is not currently contracted and was sent a written letter about the class being suspended. A follow-up letter will be sent.

Meanwhile, Tyler has worked with its legal department to come up with the new policy.

“While we are talking about a very small group of individuals providing contract services as instructors, it is a matter that we take very seriously, which is why we have had such a practice in place for many years when it comes to employees and volunteers,” City Manager Mark McDaniel said via email. “I am pleased that they (city staff) took swift action to address the concern as soon as they became aware of it.”

The city previously only did a background check on contracted individuals if they signed a waiver. Under the new policy, the instructors must agree to background checks.

Assistant City Manager/Communications Director Susan Guthrie said there was not a specific reason why background checks weren’t performed unless a waiver was signed. However, she and Ms. Rollings said the city now feels it is important to have a safeguard in place — particularly since these contracted instructors are at Glass Recreation Center, which is at a park where children are — on a routine basis, and the new policy is an opportunity to treat them the same as city employees.

“Our top priority of course is to keep our citizens safe when they’re using our facilities. … If we’re doing background checks on city of Tyler employees that we potentially hire, then we really should be maintaining that standard across the board,” Ms. Rollings said.

Currently, background checks are performed on all city employees, including summer help, such as summer playground staff and lifeguards, and people who assist the city through its Volunteer Tyler program.

If it is a temporary position, a job description is sent out to temporary agencies, Human Resources Director ReNissa Wade said.

The city then goes through any applications from appropriate candidates, and interviews are conducted to decide whether the city wants to hire that person, she said.

She said the city relies on the agencies to do background checks and to understand what the city wants and will accept for different positions. For instance, she said, the city wouldn’t want someone with a pending felony to come in to work temporarily as a secretary in the Tyler Police Department.

Ms. Wade said the city doesn’t typically do its own background check on the person unless that individual has a commercial driver’s license and must go through more of a vetting process.

She said the process of hiring full-time and part-time employees is more strenuous.

After a position is posted, the individual applies and then receives questions to answer related to the position they are vying for, Ms. Wade said. Applications that meet the criteria for the position, along with the answers to those questions, are then sent to the hiring department.

Ms. Wade said a person’s experience level, where they’ve worked before and answers to the questions help determine whether they are interviewed for the position. Interviews are conducted via a diverse panel of city employees, and scores from each reviewer are added up. The top two people then typically move forward, and one is eventually chosen.

Ms. Wade said the panel interviews are relatively new, as the city decided two or three years ago to move away from one-on-one interviews. Now each applicant is interviewed by a panel, which uses questions that are catered to what the city is looking for with that specific position, she said.

“We love to make sure that we’re using a core set of questions and that we’re not deviating from those questions so that each interview is as fair as possible,” Ms. Wade said. “They’re all being asked the same question and given the same opportunities.”

She said the city does not look at someone’s criminal history unless a job offer is made, and all offers are contingent on those screenings.

For seasonal employees, such as crossing guards and lifeguards, the city would perform a background check just like with part-time and full-time employees.

Ms. Wade said the vetting process for civil service positions is even more strenuous and includes polygraph tests and credit checks.

“We’re looking for everything that we need to look for that we can look for in accordance with the law,” she said of hiring city employees. “It’s really a clean process. … It tries to put as much fairness in it as possible, … take away that halo effect.” 

Ms. Guthrie said overall that she’s pleased that the city was able to act swiftly with the Body Combat instructor’s situation and address it so that something similar doesn’t occur in the future.