Fairfax Co. superintendent says frequent background checks in the works, calls for Va. to sign up for FBI program

Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia this week released some of the findings of an independent investigation into how a school counselor was able to keep his arrest and conviction for a sex offense under wraps until he was arrested for a second time.

One finding recommended frequent background checks to make sure the school system knows when employees get in trouble with the law.

Speaking to parents at Glasgow Middle School on Tuesday, Superintendent Michelle Reid expressed interest in having the school system join the FBI’s Rap Back program. The program, according to the FBI’s website, checks the fingerprints of employees against the fingerprints of people arrested around the nation. A match would trigger a notification for the school system.

In the case of school counselor Darren Thornton, the hope is the program would have flagged the school system after his first arrest, once his fingerprints were examined by the system. Thornton remained on the job for 20 months, until he was arrested in a second sting operation.

At the time of Thornton’s first arrest, the Chesterfield Police Department said it tried to contact the school system. Responding to a FOIA request from WTOP earlier this year, the Chesterfield police said three emails were sent to two different email addresses that the Fairfax County school system provided for then-superintendent Scott Brabrand, and all the messages bounced back.

“We’re really encouraging the Commonwealth to pursue the opportunity to engage with the FBI Rap Back program, which would enable all divisions in the Commonwealth to have seamless background checking and reporting,” Reid told WTOP on Tuesday.

State legislation

In response, Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell said his legislation, which passed in 2021, is already paving the way for that. It was part of a package of legislation on the sealing of some criminal records.

Surovell said the legislation requires an extensive upgrade of Virginia State Police’s computer system, and the process of updating that system is underway.

“They need to rebuild their entire Virginia criminal records backbone, and their computer background,” Surovell said.

He said the legislation gives the state police agency until 2025 to make the upgrades, which are estimated to cost $12.5 million. Once complete, the state would join services such as the Rap Back program.

The school system said it is looking to the commonwealth to make the background check program a reality sooner, but Surovell said while the VSP is working fast, it is no easy process to complete.

“It’s a very complex computer infrastructure, and to completely rebuild it, and redeploy it, is not a simple task, which is why it’s taking the period of time that it is. And we actually authorized the state police to implement this plan without going to normal procurement process, which would have delayed it years,” Surovell said.

In a letter to parents, the school system said frequent background checks are among the “improvements” and “actions” FCPS will make in the coming weeks.

WTOP has asked FCPS about a timeline for its plans to begin conducting frequent background checks.

“Student and staff safety is a top priority. While we explore the FBI Rap Back program, we also continue to review other options that may address our more immediate needs,” a spokesperson said.

As the work continues to update VSP infrastructure, Surovell said he will soon introduce another bill intended to prevent a situation similar to Fairfax County’s from happening again. He said it would require the Virginia Department of Education to post contacts for all the commonwealth’s school systems in a place where law enforcement can easily find them.

The measure would also require law enforcement agencies that arrest someone for a sex offense to run their information through the Virginia Employment System to see whether they work in a job that has them around children, he said.

Thornton was also charged with providing false information when registering as a sex offender. He was listed in the registry as self-employed.

“You can’t have a situation where somebody lies about whether they work for a school system or not,” Surovell said.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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