Teachers to face criminal background checks every five years

The amendments introduced Wednesday to Nova Scotia's Education Act come after five teachers were charged this school year with criminal offences involving students.

Education Act changes come after five N.S. teachers charged with offences related to students

Education Minister Zach Churchill speaks Wednesday in Halifax about amendments to the Education Act requiring teachers to submit to a criminal record check every five years. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Teachers and other staff who regularly work with students in Nova Scotia schools will be required to get criminal background checks every five years, a move that comes after a handful of teachers this school year were charged with criminal offences involving students.

Education Minister Zach Churchill introduced the amendments to the Education Act Wednesday at Province House. They will also require employees sign a declaration each school year to indicate if they've been convicted of or charged with a criminal offence.

As they have in the past, staff will be required to disclose immediately if they've been charged with or convicted of a criminal offence.

"When parents send their children to school they expect they'll receive a quality education," said Churchill. "But they also expect that their children will be in a safe environment."

The changes come after five teachers have been charged this school year with offences involving students, including assault, sexual assault, child luring and possession of child pornography.

Cole Harbour District High School teacher Derek Stephenson, who has a previous criminal record, was charged last fall with assaulting a student. (CBC)

Churchill said there is a direct correlation between those incidents and Wednesday's amendments.

"This is absolutely in response to an alarming amount of incidences that have happened this year alone," he said. "This is not a foolproof tool, but it does give us a new tool to better screen and gather information on the folks that are in front of our kids to help us identify if there are potentially any risks."

People being hired into the system will be responsible for the cost of the first criminal check, as they have been in the past, however subsequent checks will be at the expense of the department. Churchill estimated the annual cost would be about $225,000.

The minister said "the vast majority" of teachers "pose no threat and are only positive influences on the lives of students," but one incident such as what's happened this year is too many.

"We just have to do a better job when it comes to screening," he said.

Paul Wozney is president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (CBC)

Paul Wozney, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union president, said the changes don't come as a surprise and are in step with measures the union and department have been working on for several months.

"It's good to see the government put legislation forward that's consistent with the goals that we held in common," he said.

He said the changes are mainly a matter of turning policies into law and creating consistency across the various regional centres for education.

While the additional background checks and requirement for an annual declaration related to charges and convictions are new steps, Wozney said the union supports them.

Regulations, which have not been finalized, are something the union is watching, but Wozney said they have assurances from the department that the union will be involved in that process.

Some exemptions

The approach Nova Scotia is following is similar to what's in place in Ontario and British Columbia, and will create a unified approach across the province for how screening and background checks are handled.

Regulations will also be developed to deal with volunteers, who are already required to get criminal record checks each year.

There will be an exemption in the amendments related to employees of the school system who do not have regular contact with students, such as a clerk in a regional centre of education office.

Department officials said they're still working on who would fall into that category.

Churchill said the Nova Scotia Teachers Union has been aware of the changes as they've been developed, and unions representing other workers within the school system will be involved as further details are finalized.

About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca