Metro Beat: Wilkinsburg district’s new truancy officer has record

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WILKINSBURG, Pa. (AP) – An urban high school that’s struggling with high truancy rates has run into another roadblock to combat them: The new attendance officer has a criminal record for domestic violence that is causing some officials to reconsider his appointment.

Walter Wilson, who is also the boys’ basketball coach and parent/community liaison at Wilkinsburg High School, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1nntS3Y ) his criminal record doesn’t bar his employment or appointment as attendance officer.

“The Wilkinsburg School District processed and received all of the required documents for employment,” Wilson said. “There is nothing in my criminal background that prohibits me from working in any school or with child.”

District officials agree with that, but the school board president and others are now reconsidering Wilson’s role.

“The domestic violence charges concern me the most,” school board President Ed Donovan said. “Violence against women is among the most despicable of crimes, and no school can offer up this kind of offender as a role model or coach.”

Wilson, 35, was appointed last month after the district’s first appointee – who also oversees the district’s computer system – said the truancy duties were too much work and immediately took an extended, stress-related sick leave.

The district hasn’t had a truancy officer since October 2012, meaning nobody has filed truancy citations against parents or students during that time, even though state law requires each district to have such an official. During that time, the district’s rate of habitually truant students – defined as those with at least six unexcused absences – has risen from 57.4 percent to 76.2 percent.

Superintendent Lee McFerren thought he had solved that problem by appointing Wilson in Feb. 28, until the newspaper reported Wilson was found guilty of simple assault and harassment for a 2010 encounter involving a woman who lived with him. The woman also got a protection from abuse court order against Wilson for three years, which expired February 2013, a month after the district hired him.

Stuart Knade, the chief lawyer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and Ira Weiss, a veteran solicitor for the neighboring Pittsburgh Public Schools and other districts, said candidates with a criminal history should be asked about it, even if the crimes don’t automatically disqualify them from working in a school.

“An assault charge would be concerning to me,” Weiss said.

Knade said, “When you see a conviction, it’s a good idea to ask for details.”

McFerren, the superintendent, planned to consult with the district’s solicitor to determine whether Wilson remain the attendance officer.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

 

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