Opinion

How is it possible that Karla Homolka was volunteering at a Montreal school?

As the mother of a kindergartner, I was stunned by the news that serial killer Karla Homolka was helping out an elementary school.

Imagine dropping your kindergartner off at school for an exciting field trip with her class. You’ve packed her reusable water bottle and nut-free lunch, lathered on sunscreen and, after hugging and kissing her goodbye, watched to make sure that she crossed the street safely. Now imagine learning that one of her field-trip chaperones is infamous schoolgirl killer Karla Homolka.

If this sounds sickening, that’s because it is. When I saw the headline, I thought I’d read it wrong. Could Homolka really be escorting little ones on a school outing? As the mother of a son in kindergarten, the thought of it made my head spin. I wanted to throw up.

Unfortunately, it’s the reality for some parents at a Montreal elementary school, where Homolka recently participated in an excursion to a local science centre and, on another occasion, brought the family dog in for a classroom visit, according to CityNews.

In 1993, Homolka was convicted in the torture and murder of Ontario teens Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy and for her role in the death of her younger sister, Tammy. This is one of the most reviled people in Canada’s criminal history. She is the unlikely monster of every parent’s worst nightmare. Try to imagine what the face of a child rapist and killer might look like. Homolka’s doesn’t exactly fit the bill, does it? Yet, that is exactly who she is—and that may be the scariest part.    

“The idea that a school would allow her to have contact with kids in a volunteer capacity is outrageous,” says Noni Classen, director of education for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. “I think it speaks to a larger issue: that Karla Homolka doesn’t look scary. If someone is socially appropriate, seems nice and has the capabilities to interact, it’s easy to forget that people who are unsafe to be around children don’t walk around with horns.”

A controversial plea bargain—famously called the “deal with the devil”—resulted in Homolka serving a meagre 12-year sentence on manslaughter charges. She was released from prison in 2005. Her ex-husband and partner-in-crime, Paul Bernardo, is serving a life sentence for multiple murders and rapes.

Homolka has since remarried and has three children, all of whom attend Greaves Adventist Academy, the Montreal school in question. Understandably, her presence there has sparked fury across the country. In no universe, under any circumstance, would I allow my child to spend time with Homolka. The fact that I even need to write those words is ludicrous.

I don’t care if she is teaching little ones to knit or running a popcorn booth at the local fun fair, the fact that she is permitted to be near minors in a school’s care is appalling, insensitive and inexcusable. Of course, we’re outraged. We immediately wonder what kinds of safety protocols are in place at our schools. This should never happen. But is it that simple?

The story has thrust the question about whether criminal background checks should be mandatory for all school volunteers back into the spotlight.

I’m of two minds over whether criminal background checks should be unanimously adopted. A major distinction should be made between someone who was, say, busted for carrying a big bag of pot back in the day and a child killer. One is forgivable, the other reprehensible. It’s unfair to lump these two scenarios together, so a thoughtful, standardized system needs to be established.

We must also understand that parent involvement is at risk of plummeting if parents are forced to shell out money for police checks, get fingerprinted and wait several months for clearance just to dish out slices of cheese pizza at the lunch hour.

In Quebec, as with most school boards across Canada (Toronto District School Board, Peel District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board, among them), those who are in regular contact with kids, such as tutors and coaches, must undergo police checks, while those who assist on a casual basis don’t.

Homolka’s infrequent involvement is the loophole here—and, as we know, she is certainly the master of manipulating loopholes. That being said, background checks can be requested at the discretion of the principal, which would certainly come in handy if the person in question happens to be one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers. Yet, in some twisted version of reality, no alarm bells went off.

A spokesperson for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which runs the school, said that it’s aware of Homolka’s history but stressed that she is never allowed to be alone with any of the children. Oh well, then. Phew.

This isn’t an acceptable assessment of risk. “Because Karla Homolka was supervised, school officials assume that the kids are safe because she isn’t touching them,” explains Classen. “But you start a relationship and increase familiarity and that’s where the problem lies.”

We don’t know her chances of reoffending, but it’s dangerous for such a serious criminal to be normalized as “that nice lady from class.”

Classen advises parents to be proactive and learn about the safety guidelines at their children’s schools. “Parents should ask schools for a copy of their child-protection policies, screening policies and codes of conduct for individuals who have access to children through the school, such as employees, volunteers, guest speakers, trainers and coaches,” she says. “I would also ask about the training they have around child victimization and mitigating risk.”

Yes, Homolka served her time. And yes, she’s free. But that doesn’t require us to forgive or forget her crimes. The gruesome details that emerged in court continue to haunt me 25 years later. I can still see the big, full-of-life smiles and bright, happy eyes of youth captured in the school photos of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. I will never forgive or forget.

Certainly, one might think that denying someone who helped abduct, torture and rape teenage girls before participating in their murders access to kids is obvious, but apparently not. And for the victims’ families, I can only imagine that this is yet another twisted cruelty they have to endure.

If there’s one way of further deepening the unimaginable grief of parents who have been robbed of their children, Homolka’s untethered mingling with grade school kids—one that appears entitled, cavalier and nonplussed—is definitely it.

For those who are seeking strategies to help keep kids safe, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection offers a program called Commit to Kids. Visit commit2kids.ca to find out more.

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