Schools, Parents Grapple With 'Megan's Law'

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It wasn't the first list of local sex offenders Paula Hamer had seen, but it was the most compelling.

"Three of the seven lived within five blocks of the school," said Ms. Hamer, the president of the parent-teacher organization at Cammack Elementary School in Huntington, W.Va. "One lived across the street from a girl in my Brownie troop."

So Ms. Hamer, with the blessing of the principal and the district superintendent, decided to print the school's March calendar with the names and addresses of the seven offenders on the back.

"Once we saw the information, we didn't feel we could just sit on it,' Ms. Hamer said last week. "It was important for our parents to know."

But some state officials were unhappy with her decision, which they say could expose Ms. Hamer to lawsuits and does not represent the best use of the information.

"She's opening herself up to civil liability," said Terri Swecker, the coordinator of sex-offender registration for the West Virginia State Police."And she has no idea who she is publicizing" because the list does not distinguish the severity of offenses.

The West Virginia incident mirrors tough choices that schools and parent organizations are facing as notification and registration laws covering sex offenders take hold around the country. At least 47 states now have statutes that require registration of convicted sex offenders and public access to at least part of that information. Thirty-two states mandate some form of active community notification when an offender is released.

N.J. Law Stands

Law-enforcement agencies are likely to step up notification efforts following the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal in February to hear a challenge to the first of those notification laws.

Named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a convicted sex offender living across the street from her New Jersey home, "Megan's law" is intended to battle violent sex crimes and child sexual abuse by arming potential victims and their families with information. A 1996 federal version of the law encouraged states to follow the lead of New Jersey and enact their own procedures for deciding in what instances and in what ways to give notice of released offenders.

State registration laws, also encouraged by federal statute, are mostly aimed at helping police track repeat offenders and keeping child molesters from getting jobs or volunteer positions in schools, day-care centers, or youth groups.

Law-enforcement officials are responsible for collecting and releasing information about sex offenders. But those officials are far from the only players. Under either registration or notification laws, depending on the state, police and the courts may be required to send information regularly to schools and other agencies. And law-enforcement officials can ask schools to help them communicate with parents.

This school year, for example, sealed warnings about a sex offender living nearby went home with hundreds of students in Pemberton Township, N.J. And police in California's southern Alameda County delivered to schools thousands of neighborhood maps showing the rough location of sex offenders, leaving the method of distribution up to school administrators.

Sticky Issues

Experts advise educators to cooperate with law-enforcement agencies and to have procedures in place for notifying staff members of offenders who might seek contact with children in their care.

At the very least, administrators "have the duty to inform parents and students of the potential risk and what they are doing to make sure students do not become victims," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. Such safety measures would include screening visitors and providing adequate supervision, Mr. Stephens said.

But the issues become stickier, some observers warn, when schools or parent organizations warn parents about offenders on their own. Such actions could invite lawsuits if the information is incorrect or if there is a problem with the way it is delivered.

"We have told our PTAs that they can inform their membership there is a problem in their area" without giving out names or addresses, said Jan Harp Domene, a vice president of the California State PTA.

A sample school board policy drawn up by the California School Boards Association calls notification "an emerging area of the law" and cautions that schools should not act on their own "without careful legal analysis."

Ranking Offenders

Bernard James, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., said that, in general, educators and parent-association leaders have no special legal obligation to get the word out about sex offenders or to guard such information.

"People who provide the information are not doing anything illegal," he said, "but whether it's wise to do so is another question."

Ms. Swecker, West Virginia's registration coordinator, says the problem with the list used by the Huntington PTO is that it lumps together all sex offenders--whatever level of danger they present to the community--as well as those convicted of child neglect.

Under a new system mandated by the legislature and encouraged by federal law, Ms. Swecker explained, state officials will soon tag sex offenders as relatively dangerous or not. Those who fall into the first category will have their names and addresses announced at a meeting in the community where they live and made available on the Internet.

As in several other states, the West Virginia notification meetings will not stop with identifying a particular offender. Officials will also explain the law, caution people against harassment of offenders, and suggest ways for parents and others to keep children safe, Ms. Swecker said.

"We have to protect the rights of the offenders and the rights of the public," she added, "and this is going to take a very delicate balancing act."

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