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NEW TEACHERS COULD FIND THEMSELVES FINGERPRINTED

When she seeks her teacher certification next year, Michelle Stiefler may be fingerprinted by state officials looking for felony convictions.

But the Buffalo State College senior is not about to cry foul or get hung up on concerns about civil liberties and privacy. In fact, she thinks the state proposal is a good one.

"I don't feel that should be a problem or an issue," said Ms. Stiefler, a graduate of Frontier Senior High School. "If you're afraid to do it, maybe you have something to hide."

Tucked away in a State Education Department budget package is a request for $145,000 to fingerprint new teachers, but not those already certified.

The state said that 36 other states and New York City already have similar requirements and that the plan, which requires approval by the State Legislature, is designed to "provide additional protection to children."

Ms. Stiefler and two other Buffalo State education majors interviewed last week said they favor the request, while a fourth said he has mixed feelings.

But all four said that fingerprinting is just a start and that additional measures are needed to ensure safety for pupils, teachers and administrators.

Their concern was heightened during the last school year by a rash of deadly incidents in schools across the country, a fatal shooting in a Buffalo school, and instances of teachers sexually abusing students.

"It's my number-one concern," said Jerome Owens, a graduate of Hutchinson-Central Technical High School and the student who voiced reservations about fingerprinting. "Not enough is being done about safety. There has to be more light shed on it."

The education majors, who have had a variety of teaching experiences in local schools, offered these suggestions:

Schools should develop a series of emergency plans, including one for situations in which office personnel are under duress and cannot direct a response. "In this day and age, they should prepare for every situation that can possibly come up," said Sara Gillings, a graduate of Newfane High School.

An expansion of "open classrooms" to improve visibility in schools.

That school doors be locked once classes begin, and that parents and others make appointments before
going to school. Unexpected visitors should be screened at the door.

"You have to have that extra security," said Eric Schmidt, a Williamsville South High School graduate who is studying elementary education. "School has to be a safe place."

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said he supports the fingerprinting plan for similar reasons. "I'm a little bit uncomfortable with it, but the goal is a good one," Hoyt said. "We want to make sure we don't have teachers who are child abusers, sex offenders, murderers. This isn't being proposed in a vacuum. This is being proposed because there have been problems."

The state education commissioner could refuse to certify teaching candidates with felony convictions.

New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers' union, said it does not oppose the fingerprinting plan.

"It's better than having them (criminals) in the classroom and finding out we made a mistake," said Antonia Cortese, union vice president.

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