I question the need for criminal background checks on parents of school children

I’m well aware that I have friends who are going to disagree with me about this. I’m not writing this to get into a full-fledged debate, though feel free to share your thoughts too. This is about exploring why I feel the way I do and to hopefully ask some pointed questions about why this is coming up, because I’m filled with questions, as you’ll see.

For the record, let me first say that I do not have a criminal record of any kind and, as a U.S. citizen living in Canada as a permanent resident and having also obtained security clearance with the government, my lack of a record is well-documented - including one or two additional checks for jobs and volunteer work with an organization a number of years ago. Since moving to Canada 11 years ago, I haven’t had so much as a speeding ticket. I’d love to say I haven’t had a parking ticket, but alas, it did happen once. Maybe twice. I can’t remember for sure.The point is that my motivation isn’t to hide anything from anyone.

But let me back up and explain where this is coming from. A friend of mine posted a link to a petition on twitter that is asking people to support a movement for Ottawa school boards to implement a blanket policy requiring volunteers to obtain a criminal record check before they can volunteer. My immediate knee-jerk response was no way, no how - that’s just a bad use of police resources. Why should the police be vetting parents of school children? Where is the trust? Oh, because children may be left alone with volunteers? I’d love to know why that is happening. In my thirteen years of schooling in Florida, I don’t remember a single instance of being anywhere near a volunteer without school staff being in the same room. Mind you, we didn’t have a ton of volunteers other than parents who chaperoned field trips. I don’t recall parents or anyone else ever being in the classroom with us on a regular school day. So, chalk at least some of this up to me being ignorant of Canadian schools’ practices - I’ll openly admit to that. I would not be okay with my son being alone with a volunteer for an extended length of time for an activity.

After putting in my knee-jerk two cents on twitter during my commute, I got to thinking about the debate more. One person pointed out that the practice is only overkill until you have a pedophile on a field trip with your kid. But is it? Would a convicted pedophile actually submit to a background check? And an unconvicted one who has never even been suspected certainly isn’t going to show up, so how does that mitigate the risk? Additionally, if said convicted pedophile is a parent of a child, it’s doubtful that courts would allow a child to stay in the person’s custody and that kind of background is surely noted in a child’s file. Are convicted pedophiles lining up to volunteer at schools these days?

Related question: Just how many non-parents volunteer in the schools? If these individuals are not the custodial parent or guardian of any students and are volunteering, then a policy of checking their background seems reasonable to me. But why custodial parents and guardians? The school has these children for 7-8 hours a day and the other 16-17, the parent(s) are responsible for them. Surely that deserves a little trust. But let me go at this from another angle because I simply can’t support something like this that is invasive and time-consuming without some really solid reasoning. (No, I have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t stop it being invasive and time-consuming.)

I can’t buy into the broad argument that it’s worth it to protect kids, because people will do bad things and a record check isn’t a foolproof way to stop it happening - note example above where the pedophile (or rapist, or murderer, or whatever other criminal act you think of) hasn’t been caught - or hasn’t offended yet. Additionally, as one person shared, they passed their record check 7 years ago and haven’t done a new one. Really? That’s as per policy? Things change in that amount of time. They change by the day. I’m not saying the person who shared about the 7-year gap has a record now that they didn’t previously have, but that potential is there for anyone who goes that long without an update. Doing this every year on the off chance (as it would be for me as a work-out-of-the-home mom) I’d be able to volunteer is not realistic.

I’d like to know the background information, such as: What’s the source of this trend? Why did the first school/school board implement this kind of policy? I can think of a few possible reasons: an incident occurred with a volunteer, liability insurance costs, a “great” idea from parents for protecting their kids.

If there’s been an incident I haven’t heard of it and, considering the uproar over the banned balls in Toronto last week, surely this would get some serious attention. Not to say it hasn’t happened, but where are all these incidents with criminal volunteers? And did they have a criminal record before they volunteered? Would a check even make a difference? I had a teacher who was arrested for molesting children - I was 8 when we found out. Obviously he got through his background check before getting the job. The point here is that a background check will not prevent an incident. By forcing checks on custodial parents and guardians, we slot them into the guilty until proven innocent category. And what happens when they do have a criminal background? What if their offense is a youthful mistake and irrelevant to the work? Are they barred from volunteering with their children because of it?

Liability insurance is an unavoidable expense. If schools have to reduce costs and background checks are the only way to do it, then it’s hard to argue the against it when the money can be diverted to buying books and other resources for students. But is that the motivation? I really doubt it. If it is, I haven’t seen that mentioned even once. I think sufficient holes have already been shot into the foolproofness of a background check. They are being pushed on parent volunteers under the guise of proactive prevention of something that’s unlikely to happen in the first place. I should also point out that any insurance company giving a break for background checks is selling snake oil, in my opinion.

If this idea was hatched by a parent/parent group as a way to safeguard children, then I think it’s another example of media-influenced fear and I, for one, do not want to raise my child to believe it’s okay to lump everyone into the “bad” category until he knows them better. This is a slippery slope. Do I need to get a background check before I send my child to someone else’s house for a play date? If I don’t, am I then negligent and culpable if something happens?

I’m a huge fan of Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. I’ve talked about her work here before. When this came up, I decided to see if she’s addressed it because it seems to be the right kind of subject matter for her site and I was not disappointed. In her post about parent volunteers, she states “this whole “background check” deal falls into the ever-growing category of trying to make extremely unlikely events extremely unlikely” (emphasis mine) and isn’t that a shame?

Additional research led me to Google which led me to one story on The Telegraph from 2009 saying how checks like these are a deterrent from volunteering. No doubt that’s a shocking revelation. What disturbs me is that the article ends by seemingly endorsing this policy when it shares the CRB spokesperson’s comment that:

“Around 98,000 unsuitable people have been prevented from working with children and vulnerable adults in the past five years as a direct result of CRB checks.”

I’d like to know the context of “unsuitable”. Was it solely based on the criminal record? Was there some other reason? How many were parents of school children? How many were non-parent/guardian volunteers at a school? The media put out these stats and expect us to take them at face value, but there’s far more to the story. I want to know those missing parts.

Though The Telegraph article reported great support for these measures, that support seems to have waned in the intervening years and The Daily Mail says that changes are being made to “scale back” the checks on volunteers. I’m guessing people finally figured out this was beyond the bounds of common sense in many cases.

Ultimately, as my friend Lara says, the school (and by extension, the children) will lose out when parents don’t volunteer as often due to the restrictions put on them by these policies. Show me some hard facts and figures in the proper context to convince me and maybe I’ll buy-in, but until then this leaves me with far more questions than answers and I’m not going to blindly go along with something just because it gives the appearance of greater safety.

No way! We’re supposed to expect privacy on the Internet!?

Lately there’s been a lot of hoopla about Facebook’s privacy policies and the direction that they seem to be taking. I’ve seen warnings in friends’ status updates several times and I definitely appreciate being made aware of what’s going on through their updates and articles like this one that one of my Facebook friends posted from Wired. I think it’s imperative for everyone who joins any site on the Web to take personal responsibility for knowing what these services are doing with the data they obtain through their site. Thanks to my friends’ warnings, I usually go and tighten up my privacy settings every time Facebook decides to loosen them without my permission. 

But at the same time, I look at my profile and I feel somewhat indifferent to their efforts to share my “personal data”. I don’t really care because I don’t actually give Facebook much personal data that they can do anything with. I had to agree with this post on Twitter because Facebook isn’t the only Internet giant with access to our personal data – AND Facebook requires you to sign up for it and enter the data, whereas some others, e.g., Google, just acquires it whether you know it or not:

Matthew Ingram also wrote an interesting post on GigaOM about Facebook’s privacy issues; his perspective seems to be pretty similar to mine.

Am I apathetic about the issue? Not at all. I’ve just made a personal policy decision that I don’t voluntarily put information on Facebook or any other Web site that isn’t already easily found elsewhere without much effort – or that I’m not fully comfortable sharing with the world. Because even on a site like Facebook that requires a membership, I feel it’s extremely important to remain circumspect because no matter how secure MY password is, it doesn’t mean that my friends have a secure password, too.

My Facebook profile identifies my gender (I don’t know many men named Karen, so that’s a fairly safe assumption as soon as someone sees my name), my birthday without the year, my family members who are also on Facebook, my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida and my current city of Ottawa, Ontario. I’ve also listed my political and religious leanings. The one thing that may not be easily found on the Internet already is my high school, but I’m not going to take that off because it allows me to connect with my former classmates. I don’t store any of my personal contact information on Facebook other than my email address and that isn’t accessible even to my friends – the ones who need to email me know how to do so. Not that my email address is a big secret, which is evidenced by the exorbitant amount of spam I delete all the time.

I’ve secured my photos so that only my friends have access to them, though I do send public photo album links to my father, who isn’t on Facebook. I know he’s not going to share them with sketchy people, if he shares anyone at all. Honestly, if I heard that my photos were being used by someone in Prague for advertising, I would wonder what they were thinking, unless its pictures of my son – he’s adorable and very photogenic, so I could understand why they’d want his pictures. Oddly, I decided to lock down my albums after “unfriending” an individual (yes, one single person).

Frankly, there is absolutely nothing on my Facebook account that anyone should really care that much about. I’m also not connected to hundreds or thousands of “friends” who are interested in any piece of my life. I figure it’s the major bloggers and celebrities who may have need for some concern. The Globe and Mail article above does tell the story of an average woman whose images were taken and Photoshopped, but I don’t see that becoming the norm. It’s weird and creepy, yes, but mostly I just wonder what’s wrong with the person who did it that they don’t have better things to do with their time.

Dan Yoder at Gizmodo is encouraging everyone to bail on Facebook because they are “unethical” and have waged “war on privacy” – and he isn’t so kind about Matthew Ingram’s views. While I don’t feel concern about my personal data being on Facebook, I certainly can’t blame anyone for deciding to leave. The points Dan Yoder makes are mostly valid, but my personal Internet use policy is that I make an effort not to put anything out there anywhere that I’m going to regret later – whether it’s personal information, pictures or comments, etc. In my opinion, protection of my personal information is MY responsibility. That’s why I don’t save it in Facebook.

Facebook is a perfect example of an Internet service that people need to adopt personal policies for how they will use it. Bad policy would be something like posting your address and telephone number in your profile and then announcing that you’re going on vacation. (I’ve seen people do this - don’t know if their profiles are open or not, but it always makes me cringe!! Actually, I cringe whenever someone posts it whether their address is on FB or not! It’s not like it’s hard to find an address - as mentioned in the Twitter comment above.) Matt and I discussed early on after Brandon was born that we wouldn’t post pictures of Brandon with a bare bum. Sure, it’s cute, but we aren’t comfortable with it and we also have to think about what he’ll be comfortable with 10, 15, 20 years from now. His generation’s lives will be chronicled on the Internet for all to see, but for a number of years he won’t even have a say in what is posted about him. I see it as my job to be cautious on his behalf.

Every person using the Internet has to decide what they are comfortable with and never deviate from it – whether the site is restricted access or completely open. Unfortunately, once something is posted on the Web, there is absolutely no guarantee that when you hit the delete button it will go away forever. The Web doesn’t work that way, no matter how much people wish it did. Do I agree with the way Facebook operates? Absolutely not, but I’m stickin’ with the devil I know for now. The next one could be far worse!


Special thanks to Amber Strocel for her recent Thoughts on Internet Privacy post at Strocel.com. I re-used the Globe and Mail article she referenced and I must give her some of the credit for kick-starting my own thoughts on this subject.