Why Utah public library staff may soon need a background check

The bill would require library systems to establish policies for background checking employees or lose federal funding.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The journals department of the Granite Library at 3300 South, South Salt Lake, in June 2022. The Utah House Education Committee passed a bill that would require public library systems to require criminal background checks on their employees, or risk losing government funding. Many Utah systems already have policies requiring such reviews.

A bill that would require employees of public libraries across Utah to have criminal background checks or face their libraries losing federal funding has cleared its first legal hurdle.

House Bill 284, introduced by Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, would “prohibit a public library from receiving government funds unless the library implements a policy requiring criminal background checks on employees.”

After a brief discussion Thursday morning, the House Education Committee voted unanimously to move the bill forward.

A committee member, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, stressed the need for background checks on library staff. “Parents think they are falling [their children] somewhere safe,” she said.

Chaundra Johnson, state librarian and director of the Utah State Library, said many library systems in Utah already have background check policies in place. The bill, she said, would “spur on those libraries that don’t have policies.”

Dan Johnson, a retired school principal, introduced a version of this bill in 2022 but never left the committee. Since then, Johnson told The Tribune, he has been meeting with librarians across the state to rewrite the bill so they could support it.

One major change, Johnson said, is that the bill would include a tax bill that it estimated would cost the state Department of Public Safety $15,000 a year to pay for background checks on library employees in smaller, rural communities. Without a tax assessment last year, the costs would have been borne by the local libraries or their staff.

“It’s difficult for some of these people to get a background check,” Johnson said. “You have to drive 30 or 50 miles or more to get one.”

The bill would allow Utah’s smallest counties, designated fifth and sixth graders by population, to receive the financial assistance to pay for background checks. Sixth-grade counties in Utah are Daggett, Piute, Wayne, and Rich; the fifth-class counties are Garfield, Beaver, Kane, Grand, and Emery.

Another committee member, Rep. Joseph Elison, R-Toquerville, asked if more populous rural counties — he specifically mentioned San Juan County — might also be eligible for financial assistance because of the long distances required to travel in those counties. Johnson told Elison he would like to consider expanding aid to the state’s fourth-rate counties (Juab, Morgan, Millard, San Juan, Duchesne, Carbon, Sevier, Sanpete, Wasatch and Uintah), but the bill would require another tax note require .

Rebekah Cummings, vice chair of the Utah Library Association and chair of the Utah State Library Board, told The Tribune last year’s version was “problematic,” and she credits Johnson for the rewrite.

“From a large library perspective, you could look at those costs and say, ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ but when you’re running a small rural library, literally every dollar counts,” Cummings said.

Johnson said that when he was in training, “everyone I worked with had to go through a background check to make sure they had no background [with] Liability issues.” It would be a “horrible place,” he said, if something were to happen to a child because a librarian with a “horrible background” — say, a sex offender — was hired.

“Libraries have always been a very safe place for people,” Cummings said. “We are really proud to be one of the places where people can come with their families. … I am in no way opposed to directives being put in place to ensure this [libraries] take care.”

The bill goes to the full house for examination. If both chambers approve the bill and Gov. Spencer Cox signs it, the background check rule would go into effect on July 1, 2024.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2023/02/09/public-library-employees-may/ Why Utah public library staff may soon need a background check

Justin Scaccy

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