- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

LONDON | Some of Britain’s leading children’s authors are refusing to do readings in schools because of a new policy requiring them to be registered in a national database and undergo criminal background checks to prove they aren’t sex offenders.

It’s not just the $104 fee for the police checks that has outraged the authors. It’s the idea that they - and even parents who volunteer in schools - must be declared innocent before being allowed to read to children.

Some of the biggest names in children’s book publishing have joined the boycott beginning this fall, including a number of past recipients of the prestigious children’s laureate prize. Akin to poet laureate, the government-appointed position is awarded to a noted children’s author, who is charged with promoting children’s literature in schools.

“Of course we have to take care, but this is not necessary,” said Michael Morpurgo, the 2003-05 children’s laureate whose more than 100 books have long been revered by British students and teachers.

“I’ve done this hundreds of times, and you are never alone with children. There are always 100 to 200 children and teachers around you. It’s absurd to think children are in any kind of danger.”

The new rule, which takes effect in October, requires anyone who comes into contact with schoolchildren or vulnerable adults to register with the newly established Independent Safeguarding Authority and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check to prove they are not a known threat.

A spokesman for the Home Office said applicants who pass will have their names placed on a national database clearing them to work with children. Those who fail will be registered on the agency’s Barred List, making it a crime for them to have any contact with schoolchildren, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with departmental policy.

The new system was spurred by the 2002 murders of 10-year-old schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman at the hands of a school caretaker.

The United States does not have a national policy or database of this type, though it is common in many communities for adults to have to undergo background checks before they can work at schools, even as volunteers.

The British law imposes the requirement on anyone coming into contact with children at school, even for a very brief period.

Authors joining the boycott include Anne Fine, the 2001-03 children’s laureate whose book “Madame Doubtfire” was made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Robin Williams, as well as Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials” and Anthony Horowitz, who penned the “Alex Rider” series and other favorites.

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