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International college student volunteers from Circle K International and Kiwanis International continue construction on one of two playgrounds at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Elementary school in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, June 24, 2013. The two playgrounds include a design to offer more challenging play experiences for students at the Elementary and an inclusive-focused play space at the Annex. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
International college student volunteers from Circle K International and Kiwanis International continue construction on one of two playgrounds at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Elementary school in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, June 24, 2013. The two playgrounds include a design to offer more challenging play experiences for students at the Elementary and an inclusive-focused play space at the Annex. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

Extreme parents, with nothing to fear but fear itself Add to ...

Today’s generation of parents is arguably the most overprotective in history. Which is odd, given their upbringing. As children, they walked to school alone, rode shotgun without a seat belt and roamed outside for hours on end in happy pursuit of parentless adventure.

These carefree children survived, grew up, and many became parents themselves. Their helicopter tendencies are both ironic and unrecognizable to those who preceded them. Today’s parents accompany their toddlers down playground slides, they fight their kids’ battles at the hockey rink and they fill out their teenagers’ university applications. From play date to prom, they are hell-bent on shielding their children from danger, both real and perceived. The ability to mitigate a child’s exposure to even exceedingly low-probability risks and dangers has become synonymous with any modern notion of good parenting.

The obsession with safety – nudged by fears over lawsuits – has fuelled a staggering amount of policy overreach, particularly in schools, the crucible where parental paranoia and society’s rules collide. Toronto’s Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School banned soccer balls after a parent was whacked in the back of the head and suffered a concussion. A London school board banned peanut butter substitutes because they could be confused with real peanut butter. A school in Waterloo, Ont., banned children hugging each other, part of a “keep your hands to yourself” policy.

None of these policy changes actually solve real, widespread problems. But they create new ones. They are bureaucratic responses to imagined crises – or statistically insignificant ones – designed to address dangers that exist predominantly as figments in the overprotective imagination.

Such is precisely the case with a new rule under consideration by the Toronto District School Board that would require any parent wishing to volunteer at their child’s school to submit to a criminal background check, including a look into mental health records. It’s a classic case of policy overreach preying on parental fear that eclipses common sense. Ironically, this rule would also present an obstacle to helicopter parents, who see it as both a moral duty and a citizen’s right to volunteer at their children’s school. Obtaining a criminal background check is no small thing, and drives down parental participation, which is why there’s been such pushback.

It is worth examining in detail the sheer absurdity of what’s being proposed. Obtaining a criminal-background check to volunteer at your child’s school is about as cumbersome and pleasurable as getting a tooth removed. It is considerably more invasive and time-consuming. In Toronto, it requires you to obtain a form from your child’s school; list all of your personal information on that form; check a box allowing the police to access your relevant personal information under the Mental Health Act; potentially submit fingerprints; obtain a money order for up to $65 payable to the police; return said money order along with said form back to the school; wait for clearance to arrive in the mail; return that to the school. The entire process can take up to three months.

The idea of criminal background checks for parent volunteers in schools gained traction when the TDSB amalgamated in 1998. Before that, certain boards required it for certain volunteers. Others didn’t bother. As it stands, the TDSB requires criminal background checks for regular volunteers. The new rule would make it obligatory for all volunteers to pass a criminal background check, capturing everyone from a parent who wants to volunteer for a school’s spring track meet to one who simply wants to help take her daughter’s class on a field trip to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Schools depend on volunteer parents to function. Parents, in turn, are eager for the opportunity, and raise their hands in droves. There are currently 32,000 on the TDSB’s volunteer lists. Tens of thousands of parent volunteers have passed through school hallways since amalgamation. The proposed new rule implicitly suggests that child predators lurk among them. Yet, according to a TDSB spokesperson, there has never been a single incident involving a volunteer threatening the safety of a child at TDSB school. Not one. Not ever.

If the proposal for the new rule didn’t arise from a desire to solve an authentic problem, how, exactly did it come about? The answer serves to further underscore its ridiculousness. It stems from an inquest into the horrific death of Jeffrey Baldwin, a five-year-old boy who died after being neglected, abused and ultimately starved to death by his grandparents in 2002.

The jury at Jeffrey’s coroner’s inquest recommended that “a Vulnerable Sector Screening be completed for all volunteers,” at the TDSB, “with an updated Vulnerable Sector Screening to be completed by each volunteer no less than every five years.” This despite the fact that Jeffrey’s mistreatment took place exclusively in his grandparents’ home. Not at his school.

Canadian schools, despite our worst fears, are still overwhelmingly safe places. There is no crisis of parents posing a threat to kids in schools. The TDSB’s proposed rule is designed to solve a problem which does not exist. But a TDSB spokesman says that all of these precautions are necessary, because, after all, “you can’t be too careful.”

That line of argument is deeply unhinged from reality. It feeds on irrational fear, rather than fact. And it ignores the obvious costs of these ridiculous rules. Requiring every parent to submit to a police check will discourage parents’ involvement in schools, turn some school trips into logistical nightmares, and infringe on privacy to an unprecedented degree. Yes, we can be too careful.

Schools should support policies that reasonably protect children’s safety. Not inane rules grounded in nothing more than irrational fears.

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