Nova Scotia school staff could face greater scrutiny as a result of proposed changes to provincial law that would require them to undergo criminal record checks once every five years.
Education Minister Zach Churchill confirmed that work on the proposal is already underway in response to an increase in the number of teachers facing charges for alleged offences against students, including assault, sexual assault, sexual exploitation and child luring.
The new legislation, he said, would also force staff to disclose whether any criminal investigations have been launched against them — disclosure that is currently enforced through a patchwork of rules that vary across the province.
“We’re looking at encompassing anybody that has contact with students,” he said in an interview. “Self-reporting is not applied the same way from region to region so there’s a lot of inconsistency there, and we have to do a better job of that.”
As it stands, criminal record and vulnerable-sector checks are only required for teachers upon hiring.
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Last month, Cole Harbour District High School teacher Derek Stephenson was arrested on charges of assault and mischief in relation to an alleged incident that took place inside a classroom.
Court documents later revealed the 42-year-old has a criminal history involving numerous charges on three separate occasions, and he could face a maximum of six months in jail or a $5,000 fine on each of the charges.
“These are serious cases where we have a vulnerable population that we have a role to protect while they’re entrusted in our care, and we have to do a better job to tighten up those rules,” said Churchill.
The Nova Scotia Teachers Union is on board with more frequent criminal record checks in schools and has insisted that they apply to all school staff, not just teachers. Discussions to this effect have been taking place with the education department since the fall, said union president Paul Wozney, adding that he’s disappointed he found out about the latest policy announcement through a third party rather than the government.
“You don’t want big news to break in important relationships through social media, through back channels,” Wozney told Global News. “It certainly casts a pall over the optimism that we have over whether or not this government (is interested) in working collaboratively.”
Details of the legislation are still in the works, said Churchill, and will be released once they’re finalized.