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Background checks increasingly common for jobs, housing, volunteering

By Sarah Zimmermann
August 27, 2015

Field trips are a highlight for many elementary school students.

Expeditions to museums, farms and the state capitol give the opportunity to learn outside the classroom.

Parents often volunteer to chaperon, but before they can get on the bus, many school districts are requiring parents to pass background checks.

Purchasing a firearm, getting hired for a job or applying for a lease increasingly require some sort of background screening.

Background checks aren't new. Beloit Turner School District Superintendent Dennis McCarthy said the district has been doing screenings on employees since before he could remember, and he has been working at the school district for 12 years.

But completing background checks is easier than ever thanks to the Internet.

The Consolidated Court Automation Programs, better known as CCAP, gives the public convenient access to many Wisconsin court records.

Melissa Sorenson, executive director of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, said screening was common for employers 30 years ago, but the popularity of background checks has risen significantly in the last 15 years.

Sorenson said the Internet is a big factor, along with amount and availability of information, decreased costs of screenings and a rising desire among employers for risk mitigation.

The Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act of 1993 mandated federal background checks on all firearm purchases in the U.S. The FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, began in 1998 as a provision of the Brady Act.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice also has a mandatory screening for all registered firearms dealers looking to transfer a handgun.

What are they looking for? It depends who you ask.

Landlords set their own parameters for background checks, said Dale Hicks, president of the Janesville Area Rental Property Association. Some landlords check CCAP, contact other landlords, run credit reports or all three, Hicks said.

Roz Voegeli, owner of R&D Properties in Janesville, said she looks at past evictions as her background check.

The Beloit Turner School District conducts background checks on all volunteers, McCarthy said. Volunteers fill out a form that asks for their Social Security numbers and criminal histories.

The district looks for criminal and ordinance violations other than minor traffic violations while doing background checks on volunteers, McCarthy said.

Potential volunteers have to disclose their criminal histories on the volunteer form to be considered, McCarthy said.

“First of all, you have to disclose it,” McCarthy said. “If you don't disclose it, the conversation ends there.”

To purchase a firearm, buyers must pass a background check. The checks generally take a few minutes, said Lee Thompson with Rock County Pistol. Along with NICS, registered firearms dealers in Wisconsin must run prospective buyers through the Wisconsin Department of Justice handgun hotline.

The firearms background checks ask questions about felony arrests and convictions, unlawful use of controlled substances and whether the buyer has been committed to a mental institution.

A criminal history doesn't always result in a failed background check.

Hicks said he looks back three years. If people haven't racked up any violations within the last three years, he will likely approve a lease.

Roz Voegeli, owner of R&D Properties, said she looks at evictions as her background check, considering any evictions within three years.

McCarthy said if an offense happened years earlier and the applicant discloses it, the district will consider approving the background check.

“Most cases, time heals,” McCarthy said. “As long we have a conversation about it and you are candid from the beginning, we will approve somebody.”

The goal is to keep people safe, McCarthy said.

“It is our responsibility as a school to make sure our kids are in a safe environment, with adults we can trust around them,” McCarthy said.

Throughout Hicks' 28 years as a landlord, he has evicted only 10 to 12 people. Every time he has to evict someone, Hicks said he looks back and tries to figure out what went wrong, and what he can improve so the same situation doesn't occur.

“I want tenants to feel safe and feel secure and comfortable,” Hicks said.