By Paul Hanke
I agree with Torrey Smith’s distressed and dismayed comments on the new supervisory union rules requiring fingerprints and background checks for school volunteers. As someone who has done a bit of volunteering in The Valley and elsewhere, I too find this policy troubling and offensive. Perhaps it is “well intentioned,” but unfortunately it assumes in advance, without cause, that a person is (at least potentially) guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.
This supposed preventative approach is the opposite of what we ordinarily presume under the law. Personally, I would like to be treated as if I was a decent and trustworthy person and I try to extend that courtesy to others. I like to believe most people would feel that same.
In the past, I have taught architecture for kids and martial arts at both Waitsfield and Warren elementary schools. I also taught a martial arts workshop at Harwood and was a mentor for Totorri exchange program that brought Japanese exchange students to the school to participate in a design project. In addition, I have taught martial arts to Girl Scouts and architectural design to geometry students at Woodstock High. And for some time I taught construction to at-risk youth in the YouthBuild program in Burlington where many of the students had done (and experienced) far worse in their lives than I ever have. I would love to do similar things in the future, but I’m sorry to say that I would not do so under this present policy.
Several years ago, I was invited to teach martial arts to some released young offenders in Barre. Although, I freely admitted my own criminal record (briefly incarcerated 40 years ago for civil disobedience during the Vietnam war) to the program director, that was not enough and he insisted that I had to undergo fingerprinting and a background check, which I found insulting. Sadly, I had to decline to participate in order to preserve my personal integrity (which, I suppose, is my problem).
The proponents of such policies might say that I shouldn’t take it personally – that they don’t (can’t really) trust anyone and that they certainly must not take any risks at all when it comes to our children’s safety. To me, that is a sad commentary on the state of fear and distrust that seems to be all too prevalent in our society today. How did we get to this place? Are there any more threats now than when I was a kid? More importantly, were there any actual incidents in the district in the past that would justify this rather drastic response? And would this policy have prevented them? If the answer is no to these two questions, then we don’t need this policy. Are we taking excessive measures to ensure that extremely unlikely events will be extremely unlikely? Or are we simply braking for hallucinations here? Or possibly reacting simply out of fear of the chance of being sued?
I recommend that the architects of this policy read Playing by the Rules: How Our Obsession with Safety is Putting Us All at Risk by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon (available in the Warren Public Library). This wry and informative book documents many cases where overly zealous guardians of the public safety enacted absurd policies that not only were intrusive and ineffective but may have had the opposite of the intended effect. It’s any eye-opening and thought-provoking reality check on misguided attempts to ensure social safety.
This new policy seems very much like the silly overprotectiveness of prohibiting pets in the classroom that we read about in these pages some time ago. My hope is that the people who developed this offensive policy will reconsider and come up with something less insulting to otherwise good-hearted people who simply want to help out without submitting to costly and unprovoked questioning and assumptions about their motives and integrity.
Nobody wants harm to come to any of our children, but that does not justify overreaction by hypervigilant bureaucrats to what may only be perceived or imagined threats. I sincerely hope that more rational and cooler heads will eventually prevail on this issue.
Hanke lives in Warren.