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Jim Kenyon: Infantile Restrictions

Oh, baby. I wouldn’t want to be in Cornish Elementary School Principal Sylvia Sivret’s shoes. Judging by the School Board’s discussion at its Monday night meeting, her job is about to get a lot more knotty.

The board appears close to adopting a new policy regarding school volunteers who want to bring infants and toddlers with them while donating their time. I figure Sivret’s going to need a stopwatch, a DNA test kit and eyes in the back of her head to enforce the proposed policy.

As I wrote on Sunday, the debate in Cornish over whether it’s appropriate for volunteers to bring “unenrolled” children on school grounds began in March. That’s when SAU 6 Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin learned that Kate Barber, a parent with three kids at Cornish Elementary who helps out with the yearbook, wasn’t coming to school alone.

Apparently, Sivret didn’t have a problem with Kalem, who is now 7 months old, joining Barber on her weekly visits. But McGoodwin certainly did. Citing liability concerns, McGoodwin declared that “unenrolled” children could no longer accompany school volunteers. The decree also affected two moms who were directing a school play and had the potential to raise havoc with volunteer coaches and field trip chaperones.

Which brings us to Monday night.

About 60 residents came to hear — and be heard — about the five-member School Board’s course of action. The board had the authority to overrule McGoodwin, who is in his third year of running the district that includes Cornish, Claremont and Unity, but I don’t think that was a realistic possibility. Generally, what McGoodwin says, the School Board does.

Just not this time. As hard as it might be to believe, the board appears to have made matters worse.

The board gave preliminary approval to a policy so restrictive that it makes passing through TSA security at Logan International seem as carefree as checking out a library book.

Rule No. 1: “Volunteers must request and receive prior approval of the principal each time their child(ren) accompanies them.”

Rule No. 2: “Volunteers will not arrive more than 10 minutes prior to, nor remain at school after, their assignment.” (Now you see why Sivret might find a stopwatch handy.)

Then there’s Rule No. 5: “Volunteers are not permitted to bring another person’s unenrolled child to school.”

In other words, the Kate-Barber-this-means-you rule. In January, Barber started caring for a friend’s infant son, Kalem, who joined her on Wednesday afternoons while she worked with eighth-graders putting together the yearbook during their technology class.

During the board’s discussion of the proposed policy, Sivret gently pointed out that she was “concerned about enforcement.”

No wonder. In Cornish, all babies are no longer considered equal. Does that mean Sivret should start following volunteer coaches to the soccer field after school to make sure they’re not sneaking in their toddlers without her permission? While she’s busy spying on coaches, who will keep an eye on the volunteer parents helping with play rehearsal? If not another set of eyes, she’s at least going to need binoculars.

And the biggest challenge of all: How can Sivret determine if a preschooler is actually a volunteer’s biological child? (I’m telling you, DNA testing isn’t far off.) When on school grounds, Cornish parents might want to consider carrying their child’s birth certificate.

The absurdity of the School Board’s proposal wasn’t lost on many in the audience. “The policy is like taking a sledgehammer to a fly,” said one woman.

Still, the board held its ground. “We’re not trying to discourage volunteers,” said Chairman Troy Simino. But Barber’s decision to bring an infant that she’s being paid to watch while volunteering is a “distraction for the school,” said Simino.

In emails leading up to Monday night’s meeting, Simino had encouraged Barber to meet behind closed doors with the board to talk about their differences. But to her credit, Barber insisted the doors remain open.

The public got to hear board members criticize Barber for allowing some eighth-graders, including her daughter, to hold Kalem. I spoke with Kalem’s dad. He said he and his wife have no problem with Barber taking their son to the school.

“When you’re doing two jobs at the same time, neither can get your full attention, and that’s a liability to the school,” said board member Holly Taft.

To which Samantha Davidson Green, who was one of the mothers told not to bring her preschooler to play practice, replied, “I’ve raised three children. I know how to multitask.”

The hour-long debate also saw some residents speak in support of the board and McGoodwin. They, too, were worried about liability.

In recent weeks, Tom Barber has suggested to his wife that she stop volunteering where she’s not welcome — at least by some school officials. But she’s been helping on the yearbook for seven years. “I don’t want to give it up, but I may have to,” she said.

After the meeting, Simino described the back-and-forth session as democracy in action.

I guess you could call it that. Much ado about nothing might be another.