UTC case spurs law to require background checks

UTC case spurs law to require background checks

May 25th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE - People seeking jobs at student housing at Tennessee public colleges and universities will have to undergo criminal background checks under legislation passed by lawmakers in response to an incident involving a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student.

The Kristen Azevedo Act, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, was approved last week as the General Assembly wrapped up its 2011 legislative session.

Gresham said in a news release she brought the bill after Chattanooga police charged a one-time resident assistant at a UTC dorm with burglarizing dorm rooms and planting cameras. The cameras later were discovered and reported to police.

Gresham's release did not identify the man, but the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in late March that 23-year-old Bernard Morris faces more than 14 felony charges on burglary and theft charges related to the camera-planting incident.

Court documents stated that Morris was charged with stalking a girl in 2007 after her family's house burned down and he messaged the girl, writing, "I don't think what happen [sic] to your house or dog was an accident I just hope nothing nothing happen [sic] to your new house in Ooltewah."

Morris also was charged with arson and aggravated burglary in 2006 after investigators connected him with the burning of a Prospect Church Road house. For both cases, he pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor harassment and one count of misdemeanor stalking, court records show. He was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days at Silverdale Detention Center.

No background check had been performed on Morris when he was hired by UTC, but the university system since has instituted such background checks, according to the Senate release.

Azevedo was one of the victims in the UTC case. Her mother lives in Gresham's West Tennessee Senate district and had contacted the lawmaker.

"These students were under very serious threat of harm," Gresham said. "This offender had an extensive and alarming history of crimes against women."

While pleased that the university system has implemented background checks, Gresham said, "we need to put this in state law so years from now we do not become lax in ensuring student safety when it involves access to their rooms or apartments."

The bill requires anyone applying for a job at housing facilities at a public college or university will have to be fingerprinted and undergo a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation background check. The applicant would pay for the procedure.

Moreover, the bill also bans anyone on a sex offender registry from being employed in a job that gives the person access to students' room and apartments at public higher education institutions.

Azevedo thanked Gresham and said, "Hopefully, as a result, it will never happen to anyone again."