Jim Kenyon: No Babies Allowed

For seven years, Kate Barber has volunteered her time to help students at Cornish Elementary School put together a yearbook. Barber, who has three children enrolled at the school, shoots photographs, designs pages and conducts fundraisers to keep down the cost of the book to Cornish families.

On Wednesday afternoons throughout the school year, Barber made it a habit to work on the yearbook with eighth-graders during their technology class. “She’s amazing,” Principal Sylvia Sivret told me last week. “She’s done an outstanding job.”

But Barber suddenly finds herself persona non grata. She was recently warned that if she continued her ways, SAU 6 Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin could notify police and she’d be banned from school grounds.

What happened?

In January, Barber began caring for a friend’s infant son. That meant Kalem, who is now 7 months old, would join her for the hour or so she spent doing her volunteer work at Cornish Elementary on Wednesday afternoons. He spent much of the time strapped in his portable seat, or if Barber needed to take pictures in different parts of the building, Kalem came along in his backpack.

In March, McGoodwin got wind of an “unenrolled” child making regular appearances at the school. He heard about it from a Cornish School Board member, who was contacted by someone who apparently didn’t approve.

Sivret reviewed school policies, but couldn’t find a rule against parents bringing pre-schoolers into Cornish Elementary while they volunteered.

But that didn’t stop McGoodwin from banning babies. Volunteers are now prohibited from bringing “unenrolled” youngsters into Cornish Elementary.

McGoodwin’s no-babies-allowed edict has affected more parents than just Barber. Two mothers who have been helping with this weekend’s student production of Alice in Wonderland were informed that their pre-schoolers were no longer welcome in the building for after-school rehearsals.

By my way of thinking, making Cornish Elementary a baby-free zone borders on discrimination. And I’m not just talking about the binky-sucking crowd. “Most of the people who volunteer at the school are moms,” said Barber. “They are often ones who have the time to give.”

Pre-schoolers are also prohibited from joining parents and older siblings on Cornish Elementary field trips. Volunteer coaches have been ordered to keep out their pre-schoolers during practices as well.

“A school is not a community center,” said McGoodwin when I talked with him at his office in Claremont. “I make decisions based on the needs of children, not on the needs of adults.”

McGoodwin said his major concern is safety. He considers unenrolled children at the school or on field trips a potential liability. “We don’t know anything about that child,” he said, referring to potential allergies and other medical conditions. “Suddenly, we’re responsible for them.”

The issue of pre-schoolers tagging along with volunteers hasn’t come up at the district’s other seven schools, McGoodwin said. Only in Cornish. “I’m not anti-volunteers,” he said. “School districts really can’t be successful without parental involvement.”

But volunteers need to be able to give their undivided attention to the students they are working with, he said. From his viewpoint, that’s hard to do when a parent is in charge of a pre-schooler.

I called Jim Fenn, who is the business manager for the Lebanon School District. If volunteers are bringing unenrolled children into Lebanon’s schools, he’s unaware of it. And even if they are, he added, “it’s not a big concern.”

A few years ago, a Lebanon bus driver asked to bring her pre-schooler on her route. As long as the child was safely secured in a car seat and there was room on the bus, “it wasn’t a big deal,” Fenn said.

As the administrator who handles insurance matters for Lebanon schools, Fenn felt the district’s coverage was “broad enough” to cover potential issues involving unenrolled children. “At some point reasonableness needs to take over from some of these (liability) fears,” he said.

The situation in Cornish came to a head earlier this month. On May 7, Barber visited the school with Kalem to watch her daughter, Greta, make a school presentation. (The ban on pre-schoolers isn’t absolute. They are still allowed in the building for school events and for parent-teacher conferences.)

After the performance had ended, Barber spotted two students and the school custodian. She needed their pictures for the yearbook. With Kalem in his backpack, she snapped the photos. “It wasn’t something I had planned. It was just impromptu,” said Barber, who had brought her camera to the school for her daughter’s presentation.

Two days later, Barber received an email from Sivret, indicating that McGoodwin had heard about the brief photo session. (I’m guessing he has a mole in the school.) The superintendent “feels that you crossed the line,” Sivret wrote, warning that if it happened again McGoodwin could slap her with a “no trespass” order.

“I’m not usually one who goes against authority,” Barber told me. “This is not usually how I operate, but helping the kids with their yearbook is something I have a passion for. I can’t believe this has become such a big deal. It’s just wrong.”

At Barber’s request, the Cornish School Board plans to take up the matter when it meets Monday, starting at 6:30, at the school.

I wonder if infants are allowed in.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.