- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

The Prince George's County school system is reviewing the files of 20,000 employees for any discrepancies in criminal-background checks, following the arrest of a security assistant at a Greenbelt school who was wanted in another state for child abuse.

"We are conducting a thorough review of our records with regard to criminal-background checks … it is a double-check to see what might have been missed," said Howard Burnett, associate superintendent for human resources. The checks will cover 16,000 full-time and 4,000 part-time employees, he said.

The investigation was spurred by two security lapses in the past few weeks. The Washington Times first reported last month that security assistant Marcus D. Bickham, 28, was arrested Feb. 22 after a 17-year-old student revealed she had engaged in voluntary sexual acts with him at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, where he had worked since September 2000. Officials then learned that an open arrest warrant for child abuse had been issued against Mr. Bickham in Indianapolis, three months before he was hired by Prince George's County.

A description of Mr. Bickham and his picture are readily available on a Web site of the Marion County Sheriff's Department in Indiana, but administrators in the Prince George's County school system said a routine security check had failed to turn up any information on him.

The same week, Antonio Harley, security investigator at Parkdale High School in Riverdale, was arrested on charges of impersonating a police officer, assault and robbery. He had been with the school for two weeks when the system noticed discrepancies in his background check.

Mr. Burnett said additional staff have since been assigned to review employee files, and his office is exploring ways to improve the review process. Employees currently go through a fingerprint check and an interview, and are required to sign a disclosure that includes questions about any criminal activity in the past.

Board members said it is time the administration acted. "I would rather it had been done prior to now, but at least they are doing it," said James E. Henderson, school board member from Seabrook, in whose district Roosevelt High is located. He added that he would quiz schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts about how the administration planned to avoid a repeat of such incidents.

School system officials said Mr. Bickham was able to elude detection for more than a year because he produced falsified documents on his fingerprint check. Mr. Burnett said the failure to detect the falsified documents occurred because of a lack of coordination with the private contractor who does the checks. He said Criminal Listings Consulting Inc. has since been moved into the system's administration building to improve coordination.

In a letter to Mrs. Metts last week, Mr. Burnett wrote that the school system's arrangement with the private contractor will expire in March 2003, and administrators are researching alternative procedures to obtain expedited criminal-background information on employees.

Parents stressed the need for thorough background checks.

Howard Tutman, vice president of the county PTA, said he wishes the administration had acted sooner.

"It is a good approach to just double-check and reassure parents," he said.

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