‘Time that we lead by example’: St. James school trustee pushes for stricter background checks Board members don’t have to provide same records required of K-12 staff, volunteers; education minister plans to examine issue
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School trustees are not required to submit a criminal record or vulnerable-sector check to hold office and make decisions about the education of young children, but St. James board members want that to change.
During a public meeting Tuesday — the last of its kind for elected officials who have served on the St. James-Assiniboia School Division board since 2018 — Craig Glennie put forward a motion to implement stricter background checks.
Glennie, who represents residents in the Centre Ward and is running for re-election, spoke about SJASD’s long-standing practice of collecting the documents from K-12 staff and volunteers.
“These checks are more important now than ever,” he said, noting the recent charges laid against a local high school football coach and the ongoing scandal at Hockey Canada.
“Sadly, we as a board have not held ourselves to the same standard. School trustees are seen as leaders in our community, and it is time that we lead by example.”
The topic prompted a lengthy discussion among board members, who raised concerns ranging from how minor misdemeanors found on screenings would be treated to the absence of a constitutional foundation to support the practice.
This is the second time the subject has been raised in SJASD in recent years. East Ward trustee Nicole Bowering, who tabled the topic early on in the current term, backed Glennie’s pitch Tuesday.
“As a parent who has volunteered in schools for a long time and has had to do these checks, I know that they’re a bit more work but they’re definitely worth the effort,” said Bowering, a mother of three, who is not seeking re-election.
Trustees ultimately disagreed on implementing immediate changes. The board unanimously voted in favour of tasking its governance committee with reviewing the proposal and potential penalties for trustees convicted of offences prior to their election.
Anyone who is a Canadian citizen, aged 18 or older and not disqualified by law is eligible to run for trustee in their local division — as long as they have lived within the boundaries of a board for at least six months before election day.
When submitting their nomination papers, candidates are required to declare they meet all eligibility criteria and expected to have familiarized themselves with requirements in the Public Schools Act.
The act states a trustee is disqualified from holding office if they are convicted of an offence punishable by imprisonment for five years or more, or sentenced in connection to a Criminal Code matter involving: breach of trust; influencing appointments or dealings; or selling or purchasing office.
The legislation should be understood to apply to active elected officials throughout their term rather than retroactively, said the executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association.
Josh Watt said it is likely a board would either be formally notified or be the initiator of proceedings against a trustee, citing the gravity of offences that would result in their termination.
“It just makes sense that they would have to undergo these checks and demonstrate they have the character and capacity to be around children.”–Cameron Hauseman
While noting the subject of background checks has not been raised in his tenure, the MSBA leader said there is typically no immediate legal trustee task, duty or responsibility that would require they be unsupervised in the presence of pupils.
“‘Local voices and local choices’ mean that each school board can establish the policies that they feel best promotes safety and the well-being of their school communities,” he added in an email.
Cameron Hauseman, an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Manitoba, said he does not think Glennie’s proposal is at all controversial. “It just makes sense that they would have to undergo these checks and demonstrate they have the character and capacity to be around children,” he said.
Hauseman said he is surprised the province doesn’t have a blanket record-check requirement in place for everyone who enters schools — let alone trustees who oversee them.
Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said he plans to examine this issue and discuss the subject with MSBA and other stakeholders.
“I definitely want to look at anything that is going to strengthen kids’ safety and staff and even elected officials’ safety, so absolutely we’ll be taking a look at this,” Ewasko said.
Trustees often attend school concerts and athletic competitions, among other events.
“(Record checks are) a really important piece of modeling the expectation and the commitment of school divisions towards the protection of children in their care,” said Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
Classen said the checks should be paired with robust orientations so officials are aware of expectations when working around students.
Newly elected trustees should have to submit checks within 30 days of being elected, as far as Glennie is concerned. A parent volunteer in the division, the trustee has already submitted checks but indicated he would happily go through the process again.
Volunteer applicants can charge the division directly so they do not have to worry about a reimbursement process, he said, adding he would support either the division eating the cost of trustee checks or requesting trustees cover the fee.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.