Child safety is vital, but don’t discourage volunteers

Several years ago, five-year-old Jeffrey Baldwin starved to death at the hands of his grandparents. Jeffrey died of severe malnourishment and he was locked in a cold and putrid bedroom. This horror unfolded before the eyes of his caregivers. Thankfully, the caregivers were charged and convicted. A coroner's inquest followed and was completed in February of this year. Among the coroner's 103 recommendations was one calling for school volunteers to undergo police reference checks.

Although I rely heavily on social media to stay connected with what's happening locally and internationally, I still watch and listen to CBC News periodically throughout the day to stay in the know. If I were to rely solely on the evening news for information, I would probably think that the world is coming to a bitter end and that humankind has lost its collective mind.

It saddens me deeply to see children in war-torn countries being mutilated, raped, kidnapped, sold and used as slaves. Of course, I believe it to be paramount that we protect children, not only in our community, but also in the global community. We need to protect them from economic harm, social harm, environmental harm, and so forth. It is our social responsibility as global citizens to do so.

Closer to home, we have experienced some traumatic outcomes for children, whether arising from the brutality of a caregiver or a stranger. As a community, we have felt the pain and anguish and the rippling effects of such cruelty. We instinctively feel the need to act and prevent such acts from happening again to the most vulnerable members of our community. As an active community member, I am always thinking of ways to safeguard those in our community without stifling them.

Several years ago, five-year-old Jeffrey Baldwin starved to death at the hands of his grandparents. Jeffrey died of severe malnourishment and he was locked in a cold and putrid bedroom. This horror unfolded before the eyes of his caregivers. Thankfully, the caregivers were charged and convicted. A coroner's inquest followed and was completed in February of this year. Among the coroner's 103 recommendations was one calling for school volunteers to undergo police reference checks.

Earlier this year, Toronto District School Board (TDSB) staff brought forth a proposal to require that all existing volunteers provide a police reference check and to have it renewed every years. The protocol is similar to existing TDSB policies pertaining to school board staff. On the surface, this may seem reasonable. But we should dig beneath the surface to examine what this protocol really entails and to assess the impact it will have on those affected by it either directly or indirectly.

As well-intentioned as this protocol may be, the obvious question I am asking is: Why does the school board need a police check from a parent volunteer when this tragic incident did not happen on school property?

The TDSB has arranged with Toronto Police Services for a special rate for volunteer police reference checks of $16.05 each. This is problematic on multiple levels. Parents are already donating their time to their children's schools and now they have an additional cost to do so. This may be an obstacle for parents who live in marginalized areas and who cannot afford to pay the fee. It is also demeaning to any parent who must come forward to request that the principal wave the fee should they be unable to afford it. It will further stigmatize some parents within the community. The school board could easily absorb this cost if, as the board often does, it deems its volunteers valuable and essential.

Further, this protocol, which staff plan to implement beginning with the 2014/2015 school year, directly conflicts with the board's "don't ask, don't tell" policy which enables students without permanent residency or citizenship to attend school. A police reference check for a parent without status in Canada could jeopardize a student's ability to attend school or a parent's ability to volunteer at a school.

And for immigrant families who recently arrived to Canada, how would a police reference check be possible or obtained from their countries of origin? We seem to be on the verge of creating a new host of problems and over-policing our school communities.

Volunteers have always been an integral part of our schools. Especially in the wake of further cuts to programs and services, can we afford to shrink our volunteer base? Trustees need to show leadership on this issue and to decide for themselves what policy they want in place, going forward. Senior staff need direction on this important issue.

I think we should start by getting feedback from parents, teachers, volunteers and communities before making a decision. At the end of the day, we want what is best and most beneficial for young people. Safety is paramount. Our policy for achieving it must be balanced and practical.