Kids, Criminals, and the Artist in the Classroom

Posted October 28, 2019
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

Imagine that your child has a teacher who likes to invite guest musicians, artists, and authors to her classroom. She is particularly interested in having the students learn about diversity and inclusion.

In order to keep your child and others in the school safe, the school board, like many in Canada, requires all guests who will interact with students to undergo a police check. Because the students are under the age of eighteen, this is called a “vulnerable sector police records check.”

Now imagine that you are a person who would like to tell kids about your life and how it has affected your writing, your music, your art, the video games you create, or other kinds of expression. You have led a complex life that has not always been “exemplary,” as teachers like to say. Nonetheless, you are invited to speak at your child’s school. All you need to do to secure this invitation is to go to your local police station, pay a fee, submit your name, address, birth date, driver’s license number – and, if your gender and birth date coincide with those of someone who is on a list of sex offenders – your finger prints.

What do you do? 

Are you chilled by this requirement? If not, it is likely because you have “nothing to hide.” It is also likely, then, that you do not belong to a community of people who have been over-policed, or who are over-represented in the criminal justice system.

But if you are male and belong to an Indigenous, or racialized community, live with a mental illness or an addiction, there may be a greater chance that you have seen the inside of a correctional facility than the inside of a college or university. 

However, if you know that this reference check is likely to pull up information that you are not interested in sharing with your child’s school, you have several choices: Since the police records check will be sent directly to you and not to the school, you can choose to go through with the check. After all, the school authorities may know that having a criminal record for many offences is not predictive of future criminality. The school authorities could decide to let you into the class despite the police findings. But then again, since the policies on what kinds of offences are acceptable and which are not varies from school board to school board and the application of such policies vary from school to school, you could take your chances.

Or you could decide to forget it; who wants to deal with all the red tape – not to mention the fee?

But what about the students in the class? True, they won’t miss what they never had. Or will they? Do kids have the right to know that there are artists in their communities who have lived difficult or problematic lives? Do they have the right to hear from people who have criminal records and no suspension of their records (we used to call this a pardon)? Do they need to know that people are not just the sum of their criminal records? That even if they, themselves, live in a criminalized community, they are still worthy human beings? Learning about people’s lives from books is not the same as hearing from the individuals who live those lives.

But, let’s face it, most of us are more concerned about the safety of our children than we are about freedom of expression and the right to know. But this begs the question: Do these records checks actually keep children safe?

Don’t comfort yourself too soon. The records check is only valid to the date it is issued. Even if it were updated hourly, it could still not tell us if the person is a danger to children. Nor could it tell us whether the person is an offender who had not yet been caught. We know that the crimes we worry about most, those involving sexual offences against children and other vulnerable people, are often crimes of opportunity where the victim and perpetrator are known to one another – or are even members of the same family. The trusted uncle, teacher, clergyperson, coach or choir leader can go for years abusing children before the crimes are reported.

As a person who has regularly spoken with “vulnerable” groups of children and adults, I have never, not once, been left alone with my audience such that I could commit an act against them. Schools, libraries, daycares, community centres and other such gathering places include caregivers, teachers, principals and other responsible adult staff members who are present in the classroom, meeting room, library, or auditorium when guest speakers are addressing the vulnerable audiences. The likelihood of an offence being committed in such a setting is extremely small.

We need to protect our children and vulnerable community members from those who would do them harm. But we also need to protect their right to know and to encounter the full range of people who want to tell them about the world we all live in. We need to think clearly and critically about how to do both. Simplistic solutions are harmful, and they just don’t work.