04/17/2014 06:15 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Do Schools Need Record Checks?

In the life of many elementary schools comes the day when the whole class goes to the zoo. Weeks of planning, permission slip signing, fund raising, and volunteer wrangling are finally complete and the kids get on the bus. What a great day for everyone.

But wait. In certain school boards and police jurisdictions, such class trips, guest speakers and artists in the schools, visiting performers, and other wonderful and special learning experiences may well be a thing of the past -- and all because of "safety."

While I am absolutely neurotic about protecting children from harm, I also believe in thinking critically about how best to do this.

Some schools and school boards have recently decided that, in order to protect children, everyone who is to spend any time with students must first have a police records check. On its face, this may sound like a good idea. In practice, it is fraught with many problems.

There are three questions that we need to ask about this:

1)Why make the regulation? Just because our purpose is safety, and no one objects to safety, doesn't necessarily mean the regulation will be good. Doing something because it LOOKS like we are addressing a problem can, at times, be worse than doing nothing.

2) Will it work? Likely not: For example, we know that for every convicted offender, there is a FIRST time. Police clearance may mean that an offender simply has not yet been caught; When we think of offences such as child abuse, we know that offenders are often people well-known to the children, such as family members, clergy, or friends of the family. Yet we persist in focusing on "stranger danger." More importantly, criminologists tell us that there is no indication that a prior conviction is predictive of future behaviour.

3) What else will happen? What are some of the side-effects we should expect?

Are we keeping the right people away? Will keeping away the guest speaker who talks about what he has learned from his past criminal behavior make our children safer? Or will it mean that some children don't get to hear from someone who might keep them from committing crimes themselves? Will adults in marginalized families be kept from interacting with their children's schools?

British Columbia's Privacy Commissioner recently revealed that police retain records about, among other things, people who have called 911 for help during a mental health crisis, such as a suicide attempt. Just imagine, a child wants her grandmother to come to the zoo with her class, but she, and perhaps other family members, are unaware that at some time in the past, Grandma was admitted to hospital during a mental health crisis. Will revealing this information to the school make the students any safer on their trip to the zoo?

And what about families who have had other bad experiences? Grandma may have been living in an apartment with other family members when police raided the home. Grandma has done nothing wrong, but she was arrested along with the rest of the family. She was never charged, but now has a record of arrest that, according to a Canadian Civil Liberties Association report, can be revealed by a police records check. Will the students on the trip to the zoo be safer because Grandma isn't there? Or will the class trip be cancelled because Grandma can't volunteer?

And what about the length of time needed to get that police clearance in the first place? Well, the reason the child wants Grandma to come to the zoo may be that Mum is sick and can't go TODAY. It may take up to six months for the police to return the report --- and if Grandma wants to expedite the request, it will cost her even more than the usual fee, and still take more than a few days. The class can't wait -- and Grandma can't afford to pay a fee at all.

Guest speakers, special performers and occasional volunteers like Grandma are rarely if ever left in charge of students without the presence of other professionals. Teachers, child care workers, principals and other administrative staff have all had police clearances, as well as training in working with students. They are very likely to be present and in control of class situations.

While we cannot guarantee that these professionals themselves can keep all children safe at all times, we generally and with little fear, release our vulnerable children into their care. Monitoring, attention, and oversight can make a world of difference to safety. Police records checks? Not very likely.

While we are all in favour of keeping children safe, we need to think critically about the measures we take to do so. It is not enough to create the appearance of safety. We also need to avoid discriminating against people who are our likeliest allies. Please let Grandma come to the zoo, too.