Portrait of confident professor with university students in classroomEarlier this month in the city of Pittsburg, Kansas, a group of curious student journalists raised serious questions about the credentials of their newly hired principal, Amy Robertson.  According to the Kansas City Star, Robertson had received 100 percent support from the district school board, but some of the students at the Pittsburg high school were not equally convinced.  The student journalists decided to look into the legitimacy of Robertson’s qualifications.  As the students investigated Robertson’s educational credentials, what they discovered was quite suspicious and raised red flags about the new principal’s background.

First, the students learned that her university degree came from Corllins University, which operated as a diploma factory of sorts where enrollees could buy the degree of their choice.  Later, the Kansas City Star reached out to the U.S. Department of Education and learned that the federal agency had no evidence of Corllins’ operation or closure.  Subsequently, the student journalists learned that Robertson had served as Principal at the American Scientific School in Dubai, a school receiving multiple ratings of “unsatisfactory” by Dubai’s education authority, which ultimately closed down in 2013.   Armed with revealing information about Robertson’s education and career, the student journalists wrote a news story in their school paper. Days after the release of that story, Robertson resigned.

What lesson can schools take from these Pittsburg students? When considering applicants, especially for positions that require extensive scholarship and experience, schools must do more than check off credentials.  An extra search into an applicant’s background can save a school from an embarrassing situation such as that faced in Pittsburg, Kansas. 

Last year, Connecticut legislators took steps to expand the scope of background checks for public school district applicants that will have direct contact with students. There is also pending legislation in Connecticut that would make these more robust background check requirements applicable in the private school context as well. These expansive checks may uncover the type of information that raised issues in the Pittsburg school district. However, there is also a chance that mandated background checks may not reveal all relevant information.  In some cases, schools may have to do some additional digging where applicants do not disclose their entire employment or education history.

A rigorous background checking process is always important, especially when considering new school leaders.  Schools should always flag and follow up on discrepancies in an applicant’s history.  As the student journalists in Pittsburg, Kansas learned, you never know what you will find out.