Parents continue to question local schools’ hiring practices

Brian Rosenthal

When $100,000 worth of stolen property was found in the basement of a middle-school janitor, school district officials pledged to investigate the situation and look into their hiring practices.

Eight months later, parents and administrators say nothing has changed.

“It was kind of brushed under the carpet and nothing happened,” said Parent Teacher Student Association President Althea Ricketts. “I don’t know what impact it had on anything.”

Rengay Frazier, 37, was arrested Feb. 15 after police discovered stolen flat-screen TVs, digital cameras and laptop computers in his basement, police said. Three shotguns, five handguns, marijuana and cocaine were also found. Frazier faces theft, weapons and drug charges and is still in police custody. A hearing to review the status of his case is scheduled for Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in Skokie Circuit Court.

Frazier was hired as a janitor at Haven Middle School, 2417 Prairie Ave., in 2004, said Pat Markham, the district’s communications director. At the time of the arrest, the janitor was on vacation.

A controversy erupted after court records showed Frazier had a criminal record when he was hired.

He was convicted of battery in 1996, according to records. In 1988, Frazier was found guilty of felony criminal damage to property. He had also been charged with retail theft and burglary twice, but had never been convicted.

lllinois state law requires each district to conduct fingerprint criminal background checks on all potential employees. No district is allowed to hire someone who has been convicted of any felony within the previous seven years or who has ever been convicted of a violent, sexual or drug offense.

State code does not categorize battery as a “violent” offense, and Frazier was last convicted eight years before he was hired.

In a closed school board meeting on Feb. 23, Superintendent Hardy Murphy told the board the district was aware of Frazier’s record when they hired him, said board member Bonnie Lockhart. At the time of his hiring, the district thought Frazier had been “rehabilitated,” she said.

School Board members Mary Erickson and Andrew Pigozzi now say that conversation never took place.

Meanwhile, parents called for changes to policy. At a Haven Parent Teacher Assocation meeting on March 2, members voiced their frustration. It was slotted to be a “hot topic” at the next PTSA meeting.

But the incident quickly became a “dead issue,” said Haven parent Mary Jo Boyer.

“There’s been no fallout at Haven,” she said. “It hasn’t impacted the school.”

The district’s promised investigation only regarded whether any of the stolen goods belonged to the district, Markham said. None of the items did.

The board took up the issue in June but made no changes.

“The policies haven’t been changed,” Pigozzi said. “We did have a discussion and decided the policy was fine the way it was.”

He declined to comment when asked if he agreed with the board’s decision.

District administrators defended their policies in interviews this week.

“Our hiring practices are second to none,” said Human Resources Director Darlene von Behren . “We use excellent human resources practices.”

The district has dealt with similar problems in the past.

In January 2005, a Kingsley Elementary School janitor was arrested after a 7-year-old student found his loaded gun in a grocery bag on the floor of a school bathroom. Three months earlier, in October 2004, a Lincolnwood custodian was charged with selling cocaine on school property. And in September 2004, the president of the district’s teachers union was arrested when he arranged to meet for a sexual encounter with an undercover police officer whom he thought was a teenage student.

Administrators said some situations are impossible to predict.

“I’m not sure you can ever develop a policy or procedure that’s a fail-safe screening mechanism,” said Superintendent Hardy Murphy . “(Frazier’s) record was many, many years ago, and it was not one of those listed as prohibited.”

Lockhart said the policy allows for second chances.

“People make mistakes,” she said. “This was an unfortunate, isolated incident.”

Before his arrest two weeks ago, Frazier had avoided legal trouble for more than 10 years. The district received no complaints about his employment, Markham said.

In fact, he was a popular member of the Haven staff, said Haven teacher Andy Mynard in March.

But some parents said the district should adopt a stricter hiring policy.

“The district should probably review the policy and take into consideration that they’re dealing with young people,” said parent Linda Ehrensaft, who said convicted felons should have a chance to work in a district office, but should not work in the schools. “My feeling would be I wouldn’t want someone with a criminal record working in an environment with young children.”

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