State eyes changes on school criminal background checks

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A phony fingerprint case in the Freeport school district has led to proposed statewide change, with swifter punishment for school employees or job applicants who try to circumvent criminal background checks using such false identification.

The state Board of Regents is expected Tuesday to approve the rule change, prompted by the case last spring of John O'Mard, the middle school principal who was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old former student of the school.

After O'Mard's arrest, the state Education Department discovered that he had an earlier felony conviction from 1990 and ultimately concluded that he had submitted false fingerprints when he applied in 2004 to work in Freeport.

O'Mard has pleaded not guilty to four counts of third-degree criminal sexual act and is free on bail. His case is pending. If convicted, he faces up to 4 years in prison.

"We're glad the things we recommended are being taken into consideration here," said Kishore Kuncham, superintendent of Freeport schools, who added that O'Mard was dismissed from his district post.

Kuncham has urged state lawmakers to enact stricter penalties for professional school employees convicted of serious crimes, including loss of any pensions earned while working under false pretenses.

Under the proposed rule change, school job applicants or employees found guilty of falsifying personnel records, including fingerprints, would be presumed to lack "good moral character." Such a finding can result in loss of employment, without often-lengthy legal hearings.

Currently, school employees can be found lacking in moral character for only three reasons: drug offenses, physical or sexual abuse of students or other minors, and any crime committed while teaching or on school property.

The proposed rule change has won tentative approval from the Regents and requires only a formal vote, which is scheduled Tuesday morning.

Once approved, the regulation would take effect almost immediately because it involves student safety.

"It's too bad that we have to tighten security regulations, but it's essential that we put the right people in place, rather than people who misrepresent themselves," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Regents board.

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