x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Teachers face limited criminal checks

Thorough background searches are 'almost unfeasible,' one school says, but parents and even teachers call for stronger requirements.

Richard Neal Willetts, a former drama teacher at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, was arrested in New York by the FBI for enticement of minors.
Richard Neal Willetts, a former drama teacher at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, was arrested in New York by the FBI for enticement of minors.

ABU DHABI // Schools and parents are calling for stricter security checks on foreign teachers as more details emerge about the case of a former UAE teacher jailed in the US for trying to coerce pupils into having sex.

There are more than 16,500 expatriate teachers working in the Emirates. Unlike in many of their home countries, the UAE licenses them to work with children after almost no criminal background checks. Lured by generous, tax-free salaries, teachers from around the world are working at public and private schools across the country, many of them after undergoing only a simple Interpol check to see if there is an international arrest warrant in their name.

"If a person has committed a crime in their home country and they have a criminal record, there is no way for us to know about that record unless there is an international warrant or the home country lodges their information internationally," said Brig Gen Nasser al Minhali, the acting director general of the federal Naturalisation and Residency Department. "We fingerprint all the residents to ensure they do not have a criminal history, but that is only comparable with the data on our system and not everywhere else in the world, of course."

The weakness of the system was highlighted by the case of Richard Neal Willetts, a 25-year-old American drama teacher who was hired in 2006 by the American Community School in Abu Dhabi. It was later discovered that he was under FBI investigation following allegations of sexual misconduct with pupils at his former schools. He was lured back to the US in 2007, arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

It is difficult to carry out proper checks on foreign teachers, said the superintendent at the American Community School. "We have teachers coming from all over the world and many of these teachers have extensive international experiences, so to do a thorough background check is almost unfeasible," Dr George Robinson said. "It's very difficult for schools to conduct their own checks in the UAE simply because of the diversity of the nationalities. If this was in the United States, it would be a different story.

"With the state of the world now, it has become more of a concern and certainly something that needs to be addressed." Before a new teacher arrives in the UAE, the school hiring them is expected to do a background check, but the quality of those checks can vary widely. Also, because of strict privacy laws in countries such as the United States and Canada, even if a person has a criminal record, it is not always made available to other countries.

Once teachers are here, they submit a security clearance form to the Ministry of Education, which forwards it to the Ministry of Interior, which conducts an Interpol check. That query only verifies whether another country has filed an international arrest warrant for someone. Some parents and teachers expressed concern over the lack of thorough background checks. "We put our faith in the school to do these backgrounds. It's easy if they want to find out about a teacher coming from America, but what about Thailand or Malaysia for example?" asked the mother of a recent high school graduate.

"I don't feel good knowing that. I want to make sure every teacher that teaches my children is free of a criminal record, despite where they come from. It simply comes down to each school doing their own investigations, and that means more than just calling the references." A couple from the US, recently hired to teach in Abu Dhabi, said they were surprised by the lack of checks required before being licensed to teach here.

"We were shocked because we weren't asked to provide any criminal background check," one said. "In the States, it's mandatory in every school. [Here] I don't even remember being asked if we have any criminal background in the interview for the job." The couple said they were asked to produce their teaching credentials only after arriving in the country and signing their contracts. "There certainly is a need for more thorough checks," said a Canadian teacher, who added that her own background had not been checked at all. "In Canada, you cannot even volunteer at a school without a criminal record check."

Some schools acknowledge they operate under relaxed standards. "No, there is no criminal record check for teachers," said Rafiq Rahim, principal of the Dubai Al Majd Indian School. "We are not very particular about calling their references. Sometimes they will have a parent interview and they may take a test as well for their English language proficiency." @Email:myoussef@thenational.ae