UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES 


;After 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford's 2005 murder, Florida politicians reacted as politicians do. They made a law. They made it tough. They rammed it through the Legislature at warp speed. No one voted against it.

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;The Jessica Lunsford Act not only stiffened penalties for sexual predators and tightened the state's oversight of sex offenders, it also restricted who could work near children on school property. Under the law, employees who work for companies that contract with school boards had to pass a "level two" background check by the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to get a badge that allows school access. If a person had ever been found guilty of violating a law "involving moral turpitude," the school board could deny the badge.

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;The definition of "moral turpitude," however, is left to the districts. Orange County Public Schools has taken a hard line. In recent months, it has denied badges to 30 workers from one contractor alone — BellSouth, which has since been bought out by AT&T — because of failed background checks. BellSouth put the workers on unpaid leave. If they don't get their badges in 90 days, the company told them, they'll be fired. (Company representatives didn't return phone calls by press time.)

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;OCPS' policy sounds reasonable. Everyone wants to keep dangerous people from kids. The reality has proven different.

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;Ray McKeand says he's been in trouble twice. In 1965, at age 17, he was arrested by the Hallandale Police Department for an illegal lane change. The next year, he was arrested for underage possession of a beer. In November 2006, OCPS used those arrests to deny him a badge. But McKeand dug up records to prove that these were misdemeanors, and the school board relented.

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;Others aren't so lucky. The ACLU Central Chapter, which has taken up the cause, says OCPS has denied as many as 1,500 workers from different companies badges based on the Jessica Lunsford Act.

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;"There's been a lot of people denied badges," school board attorney Frank Kruppenbacher says. "A lot."

;;The ACLU provided Orlando Weekly with dozens of testimonials from affected BellSouth employees. One man was arrested 26 years ago for soliciting a prostitute. When the school board denied him his badge, he retired from BellSouth. Another was denied a badge over a 15-year-old forgery charge. Another was arrested for voyeurism, but the charges were dropped. Another was arrested for pot possession in Georgia in 1991.

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;Dale Luth got busted 26 years ago for possessing pot and a Quaalude. He says his job at BellSouth has taken him on school property once in the last two years. But if he can't get a badge, BellSouth will fire him.

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;The BellSouth workers say that, to the best of their knowledge, no one from their ranks who has been denied a badge was arrested for a sex crime against a child.

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;"I lost money and my reputation was smeared and ruined when people heard I was out because of the Lunsford sexual predator act," McKeand says. "If there were sexual predators in our group, we'd be the first ones to throw them out."

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;There is really no way to confirm that without seeing the files. Kruppenbacher, who has seen the files, says that in a few cases BellSouth employees have downplayed their criminal records.

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;The Lunsford Act says that workers must have been convicted of a crime, not just arrested. To OCPS, that ;doesn't matter. Kruppenbacher says that, after the Lunsford Act passed, the Florida Department of Education instructed school boards to treat contracted workers the same way they do regular employees. That means that convictions aren't the only criteria in play.

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;On Feb. 9, the ACLU, BellSouth workers and their union representatives staged a protest in front of OCPS' administration building. Crossley delivered a letter to school officials demanding that they address the workers' concerns. On Feb. 27, Crossley hopes to present his case to school board members.

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;The BellSouth workers might have an ally where they wouldn't expect one: Kruppenbacher, the school board attorney. He thinks the policy — which he has to enforce — is "right-wing" and needs to be modified. People with 15-year-old drug convictions shouldn't bear the burden of a law designed to protect children from sexual predators, he says.

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;The problem isn't with the law itself, the workers say. "It's about the way they interpret the law," says Hank Casenove, one of the employees on leave from BellSouth. "They're not looking for sexual deviants — just if you did anything at any time in your life."

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;Additional reporting by Deanna Sheffield.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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