ARE ALL SCHOOL VOLUNTEERS POTENTIAL PERVERTS?

That’s what they think in England, as you shall see. Our guest blogger today is Sarah Ebner. She edits School Gate ( www.timesonline.co.uk/schoolgate ), a blog about all aspects of education for the London Times. She’s always interested to hear from other parents. Contact her at  sarah.ebner@timesonline.co.uk

By Sarah Ebner  

When I was gently persuaded to become co-chair of my son’s pre-school, I didn’t expect a police check. The position wouldn’t mean working with the 3- and 4-year-olds, but liaising with the head teacher, treasurer and other staff about issues such as budgets and salaries.

It sounded so easy, but became surprisingly complicated early on due to the vast number of forms apologetically passed on to me by the head teacher. She said that even though I wasn’t ever going to be alone in the nursery with the children (or generally there at all), I still had to pass an “enhanced disclosure” check by the police. OFSTED — England’s Office for Standards in Education — saw my agreement to be co-chair as meaning that I was “to be working with children.” Except, of course, that I wasn’t.

When I saw that the form was the size of a  small book, I was almost put off the whole thing. But duty called, and I filled it all  in, even ringing a couple of people up to ask them for references (to say what – that they knew me and I wasn’t a pedophile?). I heard nothing for a while, but eventually I was told that OFSTED had “established my suitability” to “provide childcare.” Then I  received a quite scary looking certificate that stated I had no police record.

My experience has, sadly become quite common in the UK. Parents are being told not to volunteer at schools unless they have a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) certificate, and this is the same for other voluntary groups working with children. The historic reasons for this are understandable – the rule change was introduced after the dreadful murder of two schoolgirls in 2002 – but it has since been expanded. There is now a sense that all adults are guilty until proven innocent with one of these pieces of paper. Is that what we really want in our society?

Sociologist Frank Furedi recently co-authored a study, “Licensed to Hug,”  (http://www.frankfuredi.com/index.php/site/article/221/)  which argues, “child protection policies in Britain are poisoning the relationship between the generations.” Furedi, who is known for his strong views on how we over-protect our children these days, says it is putting people off volunteering, and making all adults suspicious of each other.

In the past few weeks, his view has been bolstered by the case of Jayne Jones, mother of 14-year-old Alex, from Wales. Alex has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and Jayne has always accompanied him to school in a taxi. Now Alex has been told that he has to travel alone until his mother passes a CRB check.

If we could just learn to trust each other again it might make a better society for our children and for ourselves.  — Sarah

 

34 Responses

  1. It’s common in the US as well: every parent volunteer in our school district is required to have a police check before being allowed in the classroom, on the playground, etc. I know that there are pedophiles out there, but do we have to assume every living adult is one?

  2. I can attest to the fact it turns off volunteers. For years I did online mentoring of junior high/high school students in the sciences. I’m in Texas, and nearly every kid I worked with was in California. They then started requiring copies of a drivers license and a social security number (among other things). Even if I wasn’t offended by the background check this was supposedly to be used for, I’d be against giving out that kind of information to some random web site, so I stopped doing it. Unfortunately, doing it online fit my schedule better, but I still tried volunteering locally. That lasted a semester until they started to require such nonsense. Finally, I got involved collecting donations of school supplies and equipment, and delivering them to schools, usually at times when kids weren’t even around, and even then they started to require tons of paperwork and background checks. I hate abandoning the volunteering, but I don’t know how else to make a statement except by giving it up. I shudder to think what’ll be in place when my kid finally heads to school in two years and I am inevitably drawn into it again.

  3. And checking police records does nothing to identify the pedophiles who haven’t been charged yet. I’ll bet the undetected pedophiles are far more numerous than the registered sex offenders. The baby has truly been thrown out with the bathwater.

    I wonder how many people have their identities stolen because of the requirement to give their personal information for these background checks? Many people I know who have experienced identity theft, had it happen after an occasion for legitimate access to personal records, e.g., mortgage or loan application, etc. I am very careful about handing over my SS# and personal info to anyone these days.

  4. Yep, I’ve had to fill out countless “criminal background checks” to volunteer for the classroom, go on fieldtrips, etc. It’s annoying as snot. First of all, CBC’s work only for people who have been caught in the past, which if one has been caught in the past, you’d think they’d immediately NOT fill one out right??? Plus, I don’t like being made out that I have to prove my innocence in order to participate in my children’s education. It’s ridiculous and don’t get me started on the Orwellian factor. I don’t like having to answer to “the man” in anything.

  5. I actually have to say that although I do not like the policy I know why it is in place. There are nasty nasty people out there… sure some have not been caught… but some have.
    My sister is one of those people… it is unfortunate that it is so close to my family and a daily reminder of the dangers out there.
    Not only is my sister a convicted sex offender but her children were molested and have already gone on to molest several other children… very nearly my own… but I was VERY aware of the goings on in the house and the children were not left alone with my children.
    Sure I might be considered an overprotective parent by some… but in this case there was a danger as real as if I were driving down the road with my children unrestrained.

    So although I find this policy annoying as all heck… I like that they are at least attempting to keep some of the sex offenders from our children.

  6. The procedure in OP sounds a little drawn out and over done. Here it is a single sheet of paper and fingerprints to volunteer. THink of it this way in my Mom’s small town the guy that abuse several kids before being discovered was kept in check by everyone knowing who he was and making it clear what would happen if he touched another child.

    Now it is big cities and mobil populations – we don’t know who the weird uncles are. Our background check kept at least 1 predator out of our district schools.

    The office people had him fill out the paper work, got a weird vibe off him and he took off. The cops were able to Id him from security camera. He had just been paroled. Staff was sent his mug shot via e-mail and he as caught trying to walk into a school. The system worked we protected our kids (he never got passed the front office of a school). You know what the Headline was – Known child predator allowed to volunteer at local school (because they let him fill out the paperwork).

  7. I experienced this paranoia first hand when attending college in Florida some years back. I had always dreamed of being a school teacher and enrolled in an early childhood education program at my local community college. In the second semester, we were able to assist at a pre-school nearby. Being a “natural” with children – as I was a nanny for years – it was not uncommon for me to quickly befriend three-year-old children and offer up pats on the back or the occasional hug – what I considered to be “healthy” affection. The administration immediately put a stop to that, informing me that this type of contact was not allowed.

    It sickens me that we have sexualized and perverted this otherwise normal behavior because of isolated incidents performed by a minute cross-section of society. This principle seems to be an ongoing theme in all of the ways we raise our children.

    Needless to say, I changed my major.

  8. When I was chair of a UK primary school’s Parent Teacher Association I wasn’t asked to fill in any forms. The current incumbent didn’t have to either.

    The school has a nursery, too. Maybe Sarah’s form filling is a localised thing?

    As it happens I do have a (‘scary’) CRB certificate because I’m a sports coach in my spare time. I run a school cycling club, coaching kids on how to go fast, not teaching them road skills.

    All UK coaches have to be CRB accredited.

    I also teach pre-schoolers how to cycle. My technique is mostly hands-off, getting the kids to figure out the balance trick all by themselves, but there are times when I may have to catch them as they veer off into a hedge. I do so without a moment’s hesitation but am painfully aware that by grabbing a child and saving him or her from cuts and grazes I might be accused, one day, of ‘inappropriate contact’.

  9. My lord, it’s his MOTHER, for god’s sake. Have we really reached the point where a mother needs what is essentially a criminal background check in order to have and care for her own children?

  10. in some situations the mother IS the criminal. My sister, as an example.
    She has gotten a job working around the public by lying about her past, the job didn’t do a background check because they believed her.
    The sad thing is that the people we have to protect our children from are people that know HOW to work the system… so I don’t know that any system CAN work 100%.
    I don’t know the solution… I just know I don’t complain when I have to fill out the endless MOUNDS of paperwork required to volunteer… because the predators HAVE been very close to my own children before.

  11. I’ve undergone many background checks, both in my work (which involved contact with kids) and at my kids’ daycares and schools. I’ve always felt they were used primarily to absolve the school/program of liability–the standard quote in news stories here about a sexual abuse case will have the director saying something along the lines of, “we did a background check and it came up clean.”

    The background check doesn’t provide any sort of education, support or even tools for creating an environment where crimes against kids will be discouraged. It doesn’t even guarantee that the person being checked has not committed crimes–only that they’ve not been prosecuted.

    This has been very problematic in Washington State, where teachers and coaches have often been reassigned to other schools or voluntarily allowed to leave, instead of facing prosecution. The Seattle Times ran an in-depth series on coaches: http://tinyurl.com/5zd5yc

    Doing background checks can provide a false sense of security for parents and school administrators alike. Those background checks cost money–is it money well spent?

  12. […] ARE ALL SCHOOL VOLUNTEERS POTENTIAL PERVERTS? That’s what they think in England, as you shall see. Our guest blogger today is Sarah Ebner. She edits School […] […]

  13. @Sam:

    Here’s the problem: Your sister is apparently keen to work around these “background check” procedures. People like me, on the other hand, are not. So what these bureaucratic procedures actually do is filter out all the people who aren’t pedophiles, by making sure that only someone with an unhealthy interest in children will be motivated enough to jump through all the hoops or work out how to bypass the system.

    (I volunteered for a black family technology awareness event at a school. Would I do the same if it required a background check? Definitely not.)

  14. […] ARE ALL SCHOOL VOLUNTEERS POTENTIAL PERVERTS? That’s what they think in England, as you shall see. Our guest blogger today is Sarah Ebner. She edits School […] […]

  15. Here in Florida, we take the background check even farther. The Jessica Lunsford Act signed into law in Florida in 1995 after the assault and murder of elementary student Jessica Lunsford, requires a Level 2 screening (fingerprinting and FBI background check) of any non-instructional school district personnel or contractual personnel who are permitted access on school grounds when students are present, as well as those who have direct contact with students or who have access to or control school funds. “Contractual personnel” has been defined as any vendor, individual or entity under contract with the school board.

    Which means if you are the guy who delivers the sodas to the teacher’s lounge machine, the construction worker who works for the contractor fixing the school roof or the FedEx driver who delivers to the school, you’ve got to be fingerprinted and screened.

    However, on parent night, I’m sure we have convicted criminals on property, but hey, their kids need to go to school with the support and involvement of their moms and dads, too.

    I don’t know where we should draw or cross the line on school safety and background checks.

  16. Where should we draw the line? Probably a little bit before requiring FBI checks for the soda delivery guy, I reckon.

    And am I the only one who finds the practice of naming legislation after dead white children to be rather odious?

  17. most of these processes are in place to appease the insurances. they do little to actually protect the children.
    In one class I took on church volunteerism, there was a lady who had been indicted in a county wide “s*x ring” (which ended up being proven a lie)
    she wrote down that she had been indicted for this false accusation, but that indictment never showed up on the background check. In her case a positive. but how many criminals get caught without enough evidence to convict? those people are loose within the system & there is no indication that they should be more diligently watched.

    we may be better off trusting our intuition than trusting in background checks

  18. I agree that the process doesn’t work…
    The reason my sister can get away with is it is because no one really checks. The “say” they do a background check but a lot of places only collect the info and then don’t run it.
    My sister got her job by just not putting down that she had a felony and they didn’t check it out… maybe because it would cost them money to check… maybe because they trusted her.
    And isn’t that kinda what we are trying to do with our children? Encourage them to trust people without checking?
    It is just a fine line… I don’t see a solution… and MOST sex offenders will go years before they are even caught because of the grooming that the sex offenders do.
    It is rather sad that because of a few people the mass lives in fear… or struggle to balance being cautious without instilling the fear in our children.

  19. I left a comment on an earlier posting, thought I’d share it here so more people can see:

    I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to read the article, Safe and Insane, by Philip Wylie.

    It implores EXACTLY the over-protective attitude parents have today.

    Sample passage:
    “The past fifty years of what we call civilization have utterly ruined childhood. The automobile, by restricting children to the yard or the block, by conditioning their very impulse to chase a ball, and by hooting at them like a beast whenever they appear on the margins of its sacred raceways, has taken away their last rights. The city itself is, of course, no place for children. Today the millionaire’s son is as much immured as the child in Victorian slums; perhaps the chauffeur drives him to and from school, but he is walled in by the hooting iron and is altogether cut off from Nature.”

    Another passage:
    “The life of a child ought to be a process of adventure, experience, and exploit, graduated upward to suit his rising consciousness – which, as I have said, follows the unfolding pattern of all instinct. In this process, if he is to become truly adult and thus mentally and emotionally secure, he must make contact with the evolutionary experiences of his forebears, for only thus can his emotions mature and only thus can he get a biological sense of those fundamentals of human life and society which sustain civilization even at its most citified summits. But instead of aiding and abetting this procedure, we have done everything we can think of to shield and protect our children from the facts of life.”

    It was published in the Atlantic Monthly – in 1948. (Atlantic Monthly, January 1948, Vol. 181, pg. 88.)

  20. In the 1990s when I’d first graduated from college I “volunteered” to be a substitute high school teacher in the isolated community where I lived. I enjoyed being able to help out, keep in touch with youth culture (I was pursuing graduate work in public health issues that dealt with getting and receiving health information from young people), and earn a little bit of money (though it really did seem like “volunteer” pay).

    With a very minimal amount of paperwork, I was in. Clearly, they needed a warm body who was not going to burn down the school or buy the kids alcohol, and I fit the bill, though they really had no way of knowing that for sure. A couple years ago, more than a decade later, I applied to be a substitute teacher at the exact same school, and I was met with a new requirement demanded of all potential subs that I go through an extensive background check.

    I did, and I passed. I was not annoyed by the extremely lengthy and personal questionnaire. Instead, I found it liberating. The school would see that I was someone free of arrests for anything like those things we don’t really know about people we meet in schools or at the park or even church but we hope aren’t true. They could confidently leave me in the classroom to watch over a bunch of 15-, 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds, and maybe even teach them something.

    We need to find some balance. On the one hand the people behind this site are right that we have become a nation of fear mongers and fear mongees, who are not only paralyzed by our own worries but have started to adversely affect how our kids grow up. But on the other hand, there really are some things of concern out there.

    Anyone who has gone through the pain of child molestation knows how devastating it is, and the perpetrators have often been clever adults who knew how to manipulate the trust and naïveté not just of children but also the adults who expose their children to anyone outside their immediate family. In other words, the fear we adults today face is not entirely groundless.

    I don’t know what the solution is. Greater awareness shouldn’t lead to paralyzing fear. Better and more thorough background checks are also invasive.

    Anyway, after a quick glance at this site, I must say it looks interesting. I came here after seeing Ms Skenazy’s situation discussed in the Los Angeles Times:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-brooks15-2008may15,0,3678233.column

    What she did with her son reminds me of what I did every day in 3rd grade, traversing the Long Beach and Orange County bus systems to get home every afternoon, one time forgetting my 10-cent bus fare and — gasp! — walking home the many miles it was. Yet I, too, can’t imagine a situation where my yet unborn children would (in the future, of course) take public transport home from their elementary school.

    I look forward to future discussion.

  21. I’m deeply worried about how suspicion of men is going to effect our society.

  22. The author asks, “are all school volunteers potential perverts?” The answer is, from everybody, “of course not”. However, even if a teeny tiny small minority of volunteers potentially are perverts then a CRB check is a common sense thing. It takes 30 minutes max to complete the form- I’ve filled in one each time I’ve taken a new teaching post or worked with a new council. As a teacher and as a father I think that checking the credentials of all employees who work with children is a very, very sensible idea.

  23. The key here is that the applicant pool is self-selected. The people being checked are putting themselves forward to be with children. What’s so frustrating about the restriction of children’s freedom to be children is the assumption that a random adult will want to harm children. This is a slightly different situation as the adults have put themselves forward to work with kids. As such, additional precautions make some sense.

  24. I disagree with Ted’s assertion that the adults in question have put themselves forward to be with children, and therefore deserve suspicion. IME, the vast majority of these volunteers are parents who are trying to help out their own kids. I’ve been background checked as a Cub Scout den mother, 4H project leader and moderator for an e-list about gifted kids. In each case, I “was volunteered.” I (or my kids) had a need and no one else would volunteer to meet the need, maybe because of the background check but mostly because no one wanted to, or could, commit the time or energy.

    Would I look a bit cross-eyed at a “random adult” who wanted to work with my boys? Yes. But I would be nothing but grateful if the parent of one of the other kids would step forward instead of me always having to do it. Repeated background checks only adds insult. At least in the UK you only need it done once.

  25. To Princess Mom- Being a parent should not be the only factor that permits you to work with children. Other factors should also be taken in to consideration. Making an enhanced CRB check on people who work with children is a very sensible thing to do. I can’t believe people are arguing against it. Having the check in place does not mean that all volunteers are perverts, any more than an airport security check means that all passengers are terrorists. These are simply sensible security measures to lower the risk for everybody involved. BTW In UK you need to fill in the CRB check forms for every different authority you work under. It takes half an hour max to complete a form, honetly I don’t see what all the big fuss is.

  26. I’m a parent of two – i would rather have that process that what i see in the schools around my area.

    My duaghters elemantary school promotes security [ cameras on campus ] I found out that the cameras don’t work [ they were disconnected for some work and two years latter – they are still not connected ] .

    lets face the facts, here in america – anyone can walk up to most children schools and no one will question them. so what about the people that work there. Even if no in the class room your in the building. just ask all those molested children from priest who were nice people….

  27. To Princess Mom – Good point about parents volunteering. I was more thinking about people who volunteer with little-to-no connection with the organization. Extensive background checks on parents who are already affiliated with the organization don’t make sense. I think the key is coming up with a rational balance between making appropriate checks on suspicious people while not making the checks so invasive that good volunteers refrain from participating.

  28. Unfortunately the real reason for all the background checks and other multiple tiers of “protection” that schools and other entities require is litigation. As everyone knows, plaintiffs’ lawyers have obtained massive financial judgments and settlements against schools, churches, etc. in cases of alleged child sexual abuse. To obtain these awards they need to prove that the entity acted negligently. Every single plaintiffs’ attorney, and their hired expert, will stand in front a jury and point to the failure to conduct background checks as evidence of the entity’s “callous disregard for the safety of children.” As long as lawyers can bankrupt school districts, churches and other entities with this argument, everyone is going to have to get used to these background checks. The checks really aren’t to protect kids from pedophiles, they are to protect the entities from liability.

  29. I live in Washington state. In our school district (Seattle) all parents have to have a background check if they will be volunteering in the classroom, or even chaperoning a field trip. I don’t really see how that will help though, as teachers get a much more extensive background check and we’ve had more than our share of pedophile teachers.

  30. Where I live in Ontario, there is no police check if you want to volunteer in a classroom. I think there should be some kind of form saying that you have no criminal record, but sometimes it can go too far. The safety of children is important, there’s no doubt about that, but is all of this necessary?

  31. Anyone who has known a child who has been a victim of abuse in a school situation would tell you that it is better to be safe than sorry. If sex offenders can be kept out of schools our children are safer and everybody wins. If you have something to hide, don’t apply for the job!

  32. These background checks don’t work. The vast majority of potential child molesters have never been arrested. By making it harder for adults to work with children, all you’re doing is driving away everyone except the most highly-motivated: the perverts.

  33. I recall one time after performing a school concert in an elementary school, down on my knees on a gymnasium floor, signing legions of autographs on our band poster, which every child present had received…after a long time, and severe writer’s cramp, the smallest of the small (kindergarden age) little Asian angel of mercy came flying across the harwood and threw herself directly into my arms – for only just as long enough as would express her joyful appreciation of the band’s talents – and mine in particular, no doubt.
    Then she was off…to resume that joy elsewhere.
    I never forgot that: the honest expression of it, the way that felt like just reward of a most precious kind.

    To think that I would have had to forgo this – but for some official stamp of sanction…makes one ponder deeply. There are mad moments in life when if not felt and expressed spontaneously, float away on the tide of time, forever, I think.

    Children are absorbing a strange message…something of the sort that they possess a rather perverse power, quality, or wealth – useable by the wrong person in unspeakable ways…but that the kids themselves don’t really understand (how could they?) For obvious reasons, we don’t fill them in with the details, yet they are shrewd little sponges that absorb information which remains beyond our control in significant ways. Sending mixed messages? Of course.

    Our attempts to solve what we perceive as our problem, are probably over-reactionary (reflecting on how necessary it is to us to of course, prevent the kind of harms we fear the most.)

    Yet, consider. In my little town, the city fathers decided that the best way to combat street prostituion, for instance, was to turn all the side streets surrounded the “track” a topsy-turvy one way maze that once driven into, one could never escape from.
    I did not experience this as a “cruiser” looking for thrills. I experienced it as a cab driver, trying to do my job.
    I think the parallel is probably obvious. It is far too easy to solve a problem by skirting the real issues.

    – and to state the obvious to most here, danger has always existed in our world. We don’t want to admit that our so called “modernity” has made our world that much more dangerous for our children. But it has. Addressing that honestly might help somewhat, or even perhaps considerably.

    Consider also, that in this time of overstressed and overstretched working adults in the lives of children – being able to add a few more resources to the pile (for their benefit!) is not a bad thing.
    Any background check or sanctified badge of respectability, no matter how trusted, is never a guarantee of anything, in itself. Falling back on bureaucratic routine and notions of perceived infallable “authority” can perhaps make us a little lazy? – in using our own smarts, reading the signs, and following gut instinct.
    100% guarantee? Never. But nothing else is, either.

    My father’s and my grandfather’s generations loved their children just as much – and possessed brows just as creased with worry, yet they understood the mechanics of a social world that had not gone crazy (for all its warlike madness) with the ghosts and goblins of imagined predation. They truly lived in a “real” world.
    At times, we flounder in something perhaps a little too…virtual.

  34. Excellent point, Stephen!
    Makes perfect sense, when one considers how iron-fisted any institution will be when protecting itself against liability. These are the rules of the game that have tightened up considerably in the modern era.

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