A Portland Public Schools employee charged with multiple sex crimes, including against a minor student, wouldn’t have been disqualified from hiring by his convictions for operating a motor vehicle under the influence, the Maine Department of Education said Saturday.

Benjamin Conroy, an education technician who worked at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland, appeared in court via Zoom on Friday. Image from court video

Benjamin Conroy, 32, was charged this week with sexually exploiting a child at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, where he has been working as an education technician. He also allegedly exposed himself and pushed up against a woman on the Western Promenade this month.

Conroy has a criminal record that includes two convictions for OUI in 2018. But he would not have failed his state background check on that basis, Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said Saturday.

“Under statute, an OUI is not and has not been considered a reason for denial of credentials,” Deveaux said in an email. “Convictions for violence or harm to others are deemed reasons for denial or revocation of certification.”

The Maine DOE runs checks on prospective educational employees for municipalities such as Portland, which then receive a certificate that says the candidate is qualified for the job. The state rules governing those checks say that the department can deny or revoke a credential because of a criminal conviction involving the physical or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child within the past five years.

The rules also say an applicant must “furnish evidence of good moral character when requested,” though what that means specifically is not spelled out.

Conroy was convicted of criminal trespassing in September 2018. The next month, he was convicted of OUI and violating his conditions of release after falling asleep in the drive-thru of a McDonald’s and “driving all over the road,” according to court records. In December 2018, he received another OUI charge when police responded to a report that his car was off the road in Windsor.

Although state officials typically run criminal background checks as part of the credentialing process, local districts may conduct their own checks if they choose. Portland Public Schools didn’t do their own criminal history check when hiring Conroy this summer, a district official said earlier this week. Before that, he had worked for CASA, which advocates for abused and neglected children, and before that for Regional School Unit 22 in Hampden and RSU 2 in Hallowell.

On Oct. 5, Portland police received a report of possible criminal sexual activity involving a child, based on photos posted by a dating app account that police linked to Conroy. Police made the link after Conroy was arrested, on Oct. 8, on charges that he sexually assaulted a woman and exposed himself in public on the Western Promenade. The clothes he was wearing at the time resembled those in the dating app photos, and the background of the photos matched the school.

The school principal later confirmed the photos were taken at Ocean Avenue, in the classroom of children on the autism spectrum. The parents of a student there confirmed to police that their child was in the photos.

Conroy has denied a connection to the school photos. He is being held at the York County Jail on $50,000 cash bail and is next scheduled to appear in court May 4.

According to Maine statute, state officials have some leeway in deciding whether lesser, nonviolent criminal convictions warrant the denial or revocation of a credential. The law says officials may “take into consideration” such convictions in their decision, though “the existence of such information shall not operate as an automatic bar to being licensed, registered or permitted to practice any profession, trade or occupation.”

That includes “convictions for which incarceration for one year or more may be imposed,” a very wide range of offenses.

“It is the applicant’s burden to prove to the (education) Commissioner’s satisfaction that he or she is sufficiently rehabilitated to warrant the public trust,” educational credentialing rules say.

Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana declined an interview request on Saturday.

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