Just when you thought the Nova Scotia Liberal government could not go any farther down the road of unilateral decision making…
For those who have not been paying attention, Education Minister Zach Churchill announced just last Wednesday that his government was going to, once again, be drafting legislation to impose their will on the teachers of this province. At issue this time were criminal record checks.
There have recently been no less than five, high-profile cases of teachers being accused of some fairly heinous acts against students. These range from physical assault to sexual exploitation, and involve teachers from the Annapolis Valley to Cape Breton. Two of the most recent, both involving cases of physical assault, were covered by several media outlets back in November, and were the catalyst for calls from the Minister to have teachers undergo more frequent criminal record checks. Under the current rules, teachers have to submit to one such check when they begin their career, and are required thereafter to report any criminal charges to their employer. According to a CBC report at the time, the minister did not believe that was sufficient in what he referred to as “this day and age.”
The minister did say that he had “reached out” to discuss the issue with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, and felt confident that the two sides could “…land on some policy changes that make sense and give greater confidence to parents and students.” For his part, NSTU President Paul Wozney agreed that changes could be made, but argued that the current system was actually more effective than implementing criminal record checks every five years, citing a similar process which exists in BC. Wozney expressed concern that some criminal convictions could be expunged sooner than five years, and so cautioned about making any rash decisions, calling rather for a system that would “cover all the bases.”
Essentially, Wozney was indicating a wish to work with this government to reach a consensus.
Which perhaps explains his abject surprise when, last Wednesday, he was informed (by a reporter, not the Minister) that the government was already crafting language for a piece of legislation to be brought forward in the spring sitting of the Legislature which will require mandatory criminal records checks for teachers every five years.
I guess that would be this government’s version of consensus.
From the very outset of his term, Wozney has promoted himself as wishing to work with this government, and there were some promising early signs. As recently as October, Wozney was emoting a conciliatory tone, and stated that if any conflicts were to arise between the two sides, it would be his hope that a resolution could be found before the issues needed to be aired in public. “If all you say is, ‘No,'” he told CBC’s Micheal Gorman “…then people tune you out. Ultimately, public education is far too important to live in this state of always being at odds with the government.”
So much for diplomacy.
Now, I must admit that I have no particular opinion one way or the other on criminal record checks for teachers, although I would suggest that the current model seems to make some sense. If I have a criminal check on file and nothing has changed, forcing me to get another one seems rather pointless. If something has changed and I have not reported it, then making every other teacher in the province get one done doesn’t make much sense either. Finally, it would seem to me that since the employer (in this case, the government) requires teachers to disclose, it might be much more efficient for the government (in this case, the employer) to institute a system whereby such information is automatically reported. Adding a simple “Are you a teacher?” question somewhere along the criminal charge processing line seems to make a whole lot more sense than clogging up the system with thousands of redundant applications.
However, the rub in this for me is not the issue itself, but the abject urgency with which this government dismisses any attempt at goodwill collaboration. The NSTU president had indicated a willingness to work with the government on this, and seemed to be suggesting that changes were perhaps not only possible, but desirable. The only real roadblock that Wozney presented was a suggestion that such changes would perhaps need to be collectively bargained, but even that was only done in passing. However, in what has become an all too predictable pattern, this government seems to have decided it would be much simpler to legislate.
There is a special place in hell for teachers who abuse students. And if, by some way I can’t fathom, increasing the number of criminal records checks they submit to can prevent even one child from being harmed sexually, physically or emotionally by a teacher, bring it on. However, even though both sides were in agreement on this issue, the government is apparently set to proceed, not only without consulting the NSTU, but apparently without even bothering to give the president the courtesy of a head’s up.
With negotiations on the provincial teachers contract set to open in the spring of 2019, Wozney’s dream of keeping teachers off the streets may, ultimately, prove just that.
Here’s hoping that his conciliatory tone receives some reciprocity before teachers are, once more, marching on Province house.