Trustees still deadlocked on requiring police checks for volunteers

GUELPH – Trustees at the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) are once again deadlocked on an amendment to the board’s volunteer policy.

On June 28, trustees heard from several delegates before tabling an amendment to Volunteer Policy 205, which outlines guidelines for community and parent involvement in schools.

The amendment would require all volunteers to undergo a vulnerable sector check (VSC) when working with students under the age of 18.

Trustees previously tabled the amended policy, with trustees deadlocked in a tie, which is considered a failed vote.

Delegate and teacher Jen MacLeod, who first spoke on the matter at the board’s May 24 meeting, said the VSC “is only a snapshot of a moment in time.

“I believe that the VSC, instead of being for all, should be activities deemed to be high-risk and others at principal discretion,” MacLeod explained.

“To require a VSC adds barriers when we should be removing them. These barriers don’t foster a welcoming environment.”

Returning delegate Jen Tulloch stressed activities and events don’t happen unless there’s volunteers in schools.

“It’s unnecessary for all of the low- and some medium-risk activities in the school and I would define those as the activities where these volunteers aren’t working with students, they’re not supervising students,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kim Cusimano, executive director of the People and Information Network (PIN) and delegate at the June 28 meeting, expressed the network’s support for the board’s volunteer policy, which she said, “encourages and welcomes the involvement of community and parent volunteers.”

“Volunteers enhance learning opportunities for students as well as contribute to a positive school climate,” Cusimano added.

Quoting Volunteer Canada, Emily Vincent, program coordinator at PIN, said “organizations have moral, legal and ethical responsibilities to the people they reach, including members, clients, employees and volunteers.

“Screening is especially important for organizations that work with vulnerable people,” she explained, which she noted includes children.

In later discussion on the policy, trustee Barbara Lustgarden Evoy said, “I can’t think of any space that has no or low risk as long as we’re putting strangers with children, full stop. There’s always a potential risk there.

“I believe in the well-being of our students and in building the strongest space of community and safety that we can possibly create.”

Recognizing that predators come in all shapes and sizes, she added “we must put our student’s safety first and always.”

In contrast, trustee Mark Bailey said the VSC should only be necessary on the condition that a volunteer is working directly with a student without the supervision of a staff member.

“I think we’re throwing up way too many barriers,” he said.

“Over my 16 years as a trustee, I feel like we have too many barriers and we need to start breaking these barriers, not setting more up.”

Without evidence that the VSC is increasing student safety to a significant amount, Bailey said he’s not prepared to go further than requiring the check for a volunteer who is working alone with a student.

Motion deferred

Trustee Mike Foley also voiced concern about the board’s stance on the policy from a legal perspective, “being that the Ontario Human Rights Board and certain Polices Services Boards worry about the legality of (VSCs) for people that aren’t specifically in leadership or supervisory capacities.”

Director of education Peter Sovran responded the VSC decision making is with the police force and not the board.

“What we can require as an organization through a policy such as this is for employees, volunteers, whoever we feel and deem necessary, to go and get a vulnerable sector screening,” he explained.

“We, at the end of the day though, don’t have the authority to do that vulnerable sector screening. That is with the police force.”

Foley requested the board find out what the liabilities are and ensure, before anything is put in writing, the board is “standing on solid ground.”

“Given that there are a number of other district school boards with the same policy … we feel that while there are opinions out there, that in fact this policy is not in violation,” Sovran responded.

Trustee and board chair Linda Busuttil noted there is no timeline for the board to have the policy amended as it is part of the board’s regular review process.

“The feel in the room I am getting is that we’re going to go around in circles with this,” she said, suggesting the motion be deferred with a specific date to bring it back to the board with new information.

Foley introduced a new motion, deferring the discussion to the board’s August meeting to give staff time to secure legal clarity and advice on whether the amended policy transgresses any human rights rules.

The motion carried.