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Proposed school-volunteer screening is safety overkill

You are the parent of a Grade 4 child in a Toronto school. The teacher asks for volunteers to join a class trip to the Royal Ontario Museum. Your job will be to help the teacher shepherd 30 kids onto the TTC and around the dinosaur gallery without anyone getting lost, trampling an elderly person or sticking chewing gum in a classmate's hair. Should you need clearance from police before you go along?

If a proposal coming before the Toronto District School Board on Wednesday is approved, you would. Board officials want a criminal-background check for everyone who volunteers with a school, from the father who joins a field trip to the mother who leads a library reading circle to the grandmother who helps supervise snack time.

Is this what we have come to: regarding a parent who joins a child's school outing as potential predator? It is yet another case of anxiety about children's safety overtaking common sense. Such fears have led some schools to dismantle playground climbers or even ban hard balls from the schoolyard. After the 2012 Newton school massacre in Connecticut – Connecticut, not Ontario – then-premier Dalton McGuinty found $10-million to bring in a locked-door policy at all elementary schools.

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The police-check rule would outdo all of those for sheer silliness. Nothing suggests school volunteers are preying on schoolchildren. The school board lists 35,000 such volunteers. Trustee Howard Goodman says that in his decade at the board, he cannot recall a single incident. Teachers and volunteer coaches who have more prolonged contact with kids already go through the background check.

Extending the checks to all volunteers is classic overkill. Vulnerable sector screening, as the Toronto police call it, costs $15, but police are considering a fee hike to help deal with a backlog. Although police say the check should take eight to 12 weeks, some applicants say it can take much longer. In rare cases, it can even mean submitting fingerprints.

Dozens of parents have e-mailed Mr. Goodman to complain about the police-check proposal. Many worry that the new rule would discourage people from volunteering and weaken the bond between parents and school. That bond is crucial. Schools that draw lots of volunteers thrive on their help. These are the cheerful, competent people who organize the pizza day and movie night, start the raffle to raise money for new band instruments and join the parent council. The last thing the school board should do is put barriers in their way.

The measure could prove especially discouraging for newcomers to Canada. Some schools already have a problem getting new immigrants to volunteer. They may lack skill in English or simply feel uncomfortable in a new environment. If they come from corrupt or authoritarian countries where the police are viewed with suspicion, the prospect of a police check could make the idea of volunteering especially daunting.

The proposed new rule stems from an inquest into the death of Jeffrey Baldwin, the five-year-old who died after being mistreated by his grandparents – at home, not in a school. It pointed to the need for schools to be on the watch for signs of child abuse and neglect.

School board spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz concedes there are "very rarely" problems with volunteers, "but who wants to take that risk? That parent could be with a kid for a couple of minutes, and that's really all it takes." She adds: "We have a duty to protect kids."

Yes, of course, but the board also has the duty to weigh the risks to its charges rationally and take only those steps that are justified by the evidence. There is no evidence to support investigating the background of every dedicated parent who takes a morning off to join a trip to the ROM.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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