Published Online: March 2, 2007
Published in Print: March 2, 2007, as Concerned About Juvenile Sex Offenders, States Move To Tighten Their Regulations

Concerned About Juvenile Sex Offenders, States Move to Tighten Their Regulations

Safety of other students weighed in considering shape of new rules.

Confronted with widely publicized accounts of assaults by juvenile sex offenders against fellow students or school staff members, several states this year are grappling with the issue of how to balance a student’s right to an education with the threat that such a student may pose.

Through administrative policies and legislative proposals, lawmakers and officials in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas are debating who needs to know when a sex offender enrolls in school, who is in charge of such notification, and whether a traditional school setting is appropriate.

“This is one of those blind spots for schools. We’re been so busy protecting our schools from external threats that we haven’t looked at the internal threats,” said Jeri Stone, the executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, an independent, nonunion group of 50,000 teachers statewide.

Her group is pushing the Texas legislature to toughen laws regarding juvenile sex offenders after a teacher in Austin was attacked in October by one of her students, who the teacher later learned was a registered sex offender.

Pending Measures

Legislatures and agencies in several states are debating who needs to know if a juvenile sex offender is in school and if those offenders should be in a traditional school setting.

ARKANSAS:
Under a measure approved by the legislature and expected to be signed by the governor, courts would be required to notify schools if a judge has ordered limited or supervised contact with other juveniles. The student’s “safety plan” would be kept in his or her confidential school records, and would transfer if that student changed to another school, but would not be disclosed to colleges or employers.

NEW MEXICO:
The state’s departments of education and children, youth, and families have drafted a plan that would have schools use multidisciplinary teams—from teachers to nurses—help a juvenile sex offender adjust to a traditional school setting. In addition, the legislature is debating whether the state should be required to notify a district superintendent when a minor is convicted of a violent offense, including a sex offense.

OKLAHOMA:
Under a bill moving through the legislature, a juvenile sex offender would not be allowed to attend the same school as the victim.

TEXAS:
The legislature is considering a bill that would require a juvenile sex offender to be educated in an alternative, disciplinary placement, such as a separate school for troubled youths.

“It’s not a big problem,” Ms. Stone said. “But it only takes one or two incidents to have some fairly devastating consequences.”

Juvenile sex offenders make up a small portion of the country’s nearly 50 million public school students. According to a 2006 report by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 18,900 juveniles—mostly boys—were arrested in 2003 for sex offenses.

Still, about one-third of all sex offenses against minors are committed by other juveniles, according to the federal data. But federal data also indicate that most violent crimes by juveniles, including sexual assaults, occur off school grounds and that sex offenses in particular peak during the after-school hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Such offenses can include consensual sex, depending on the state, if one of the parties is below the legal age of consent.

Existing Laws

At least 32 states have laws requiring juvenile sex offenders to register with local law enforcement and provide their home addresses, although the laws vary widely on whether the names are listed on public registries and about who is notified if a juvenile offender is living nearby. Last year, Congress passed legislation creating a national sex-offender registry, and increased notification and registration requirements for juveniles age 14 and up.

A handful of states already have laws that govern juvenile sex offenders in school, according to the Education Commission of the States. Washington, for example, bans a juvenile sex offender from attending the same school as his or her victim, and requires that principals be notified when a juvenile sex offender registers in the districts. Delaware requires a convicted juvenile sex offender to notify the school principal.

Some of those who work with juvenile sex offenders caution against what they fear could be overreaction. They say that the recidivism rate for such offenders is between 5 percent and 14 percent, according to the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth, based in Oklahoma City.

“In general, these are basically good adolescent boys who made a major mistake in behavior and judgment. After treatment, the vast majority don’t have additional behavior problems,” said Barbara Bonner, the center’s administrator, a clinical child psychologist, and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. She said that some offenses can be attributed to prosecutions for consensual sex when one juvenile is below the age of consent, but that in general, youths are getting more aggressive.

She added there’s little evidence that requiring juveniles to register or that increasing other notification requirements has decreased the number of sex offenses committed.

But some schools have witnessed firsthand exceptions to the statistics, and have had to deal with the ramifications.

Violent Incidents

The 18,500-student Allentown, Pa., school district is embroiled in a federal lawsuit alleging that school staff members failed to notify law-enforcement authorities after a then-12-year-old student in special education was accused of four separate rapes against 1st and 2nd graders over a four-month period.

The incident has spurred state legislative proposals that would take away the immunity from being sued that schools, as government agencies, have under Pennsylvania law, if those schools created dangerous conditions for students.

In Arkansas, a juvenile sex offender molested a 5-year-old girl on a school bus last year, and the school hadn’t known his status beforehand. Under the law at that time, it was up to the parent to notify a school when a juvenile was convicted of a sex offense and had a court-ordered “safety plan,” something that didn’t always happen, said state Rep. Shirley Walters, a Republican. She ushered through a change in state law last month that will require the court to forward a sex offender’s safety plan to the school.

“This was a major concern. Schools want to know these things,” said Ms. Walters.

In Washington state in January, a middle school student and convicted sex offender in the 13,000-student North Thurston school system was arrested after being suspected of having criminal sexual contact with three female students off school grounds.

Although the school staff knew of the student’s prior conviction and had a safety plan in place to monitor the child, parents had concerns after hearing of the arrest.

“Understandably, some parents were alarmed and asked, ‘How could this happen?’ ” said Courtney Schrieve, the communications director for the North Thurston district. Most parents didn’t know that federal school privacy laws barred the district from telling them about the student’s criminal past, she added.

Texas’ juvenile-justice agency is working on changing its rules to require state officials to notify schools when an offender is released, and whether the juvenile is a sex offender, according to media reports. But some people there want to take the issue a step further after the October attack on a teacher in the 82,000-student Austin Independent School District by an 18-year-old student.

The Texas Classroom Teachers Association wants the legislature to consider a proposal, which so far hasn’t advanced, to require juvenile sex offenders to be schooled in a disciplinary setting, where they can be more closely monitored.

Caution Urged

But experts who work with young sex offenders caution states against taking drastic steps by enacting laws that apply to all offenders, including juveniles, without giving schools, law-enforcement officials, and social workers the discretion to decide what’s best for a student. Civil liberties groups are wary, too, cautioning that juvenile sex offenders should not be unjustly segregated from their peers.

Generally, juvenile sex offenders should be in a traditional school setting after they’ve served their time in a treatment or detention facility, and be encouraged to get involved in sports and academic clubs, said Ms. Bonner of the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth.

“We certainly want them in school in as many positive experiences as possible,” she said.

State officials in New Mexico are taking such an approach even as the legislature debates greater notification to school officials. Under a plan in the works by the state education department and the department of children, youth, and families, schools would create a multidisciplinary team—comprising teachers, social workers, and others—that would work with each youth sex offender in a traditional school.

The problem in New Mexico isn’t huge; state officials estimate that of the 325,000 public school students, just a couple dozen are convicted sex offenders.

“We want to provide a safety net around the offender,” said Veronica Garcia, the New Mexico secretary of education. “We also want to ensure the safety of other students. It’s a balancing act.”

PHOTO: Paulette Hunter holds a sign at a school board meeting in Allentown, Pa., where parents protested against how district officials responded to alleged sexual assaults at a local elementary school.
—Rich Schultz/The Morning Call/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 26, Pages 1,18

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