Letter from the Editor

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Sex offenders and the classroom

There is a quiet but impassioned discussion going on in the Newell-Fonda communities this season, as school opened with a registered sex offender in the classroom - not as a staff member, but as one of the students.

This is a circumstance that seemingly never crossed state leader's minds. Iowa has maintained a somewhat controversial law preventing convicted sexual offenders from coming onto school grounds or living near a school or other places that children congregate.

But what happens when the offender is not an adult - but one of the students? Iowa also has a policy, of much longer standing, to provide access to public education for every young person.

Newell-Fonda officials don't care to talk about the issue - and frankly, I don't blame them. The story has aired on MSNBC.com, several regional TV and radio channels, and some victim's rights websites. It is not the kind of attention a school district would hope for, but we also cannot pretend it is not an issue.

Such situations are igniting debate nationwide - a simple web search shows dozens of offender-as-student stories.

At a Texas High School, the school officials had no idea that an 18-year-old student was a convicted and registered sex offender, until, after class one day, he sexually assaulted his teacher while he held the blade of a pair of scissors against her throat. Law enforcement knew of the boy's past, and they say they reported it as required to the district, but school staff, students and parents were never informed.

At Newell-Fonda, a 14-year-old is listed on the state Sex Offender Registry, convicted of attempted aggravated criminal sodomy on another boy earlier this year in another state. According to the state's web site, his assessment for risk to reoffend is still pending.

Iowa currently does not apply its 2,000-feet-from-a-school protected zone policy against minors. But there are already 21 sex offenders under age 16 in the state - it is an issue that may have to be faced.

In Buena Vista County, the list of sex offenders seems to slowly grow over time - there are about 36 known to reside in the county currently.

In Iowa, sex offender rights has been a heated topic of discussion for years.

It has been sharply questioned whether the state has a right to put offender's names and likenesses on a public registry - which no doubt makes it hard for a person to get a job and causes them to be somewhat ostracized.

It has also been questioned whether the state has a right to dictate that they cannot live near schools or day cares - which in many small towns and even in Des Moines means that when they come out of prison, they have few or no places to legally reside in their hometowns.

Indeed, the list does not discriminate - the person who has committed a violent rape of a child is on it right next to the one who made a bad choice at an adult party and was accused of indecent exposure.

And yes, the school protection zone has crippled the hopes of some offenders to return to society. The New York Times did a fascinating story in 2006 that found rundown rural motels, trailer parks and campgrounds packed with former convicts, because under the law, they could find nowhere else to live. One 24-room motel beside a cornfield near Cedar Rapids was found to be housing 26 persons from the sex offender registry.

We are not as disturbed by the inconvenience to the offenders, in the name of public protection, as we are at the inevitable problem with the system.

Faced with the limits of the law, the public attention of the registry and so on, some offenders are simply disappearing and taking their chances of being caught for violating the rules.

In the summer of 2005, there were 140 offenders listed as "whereabouts unknown," or living in temporary circumstances such as tents. By the next March, the number had topped 400. That is a frightnening statistic.

"The truth is that we're starting to lose people," said Don Vrotsos, Dubuque County sheriff's office.

Most Iowans, I would think, would rather know the truth - and the whereabouts of the offenders.

As for the Newell-Fonda situation, there is really very little to debate in the situation.

A person who is convicted of a crime must pay their debt as determined by the justice system - it is not our place as communities to hand out additional punishment as we see fit.

The student, as all others, has a right to an education and a right to be safe. Barring him from school would not help.

Thanks to the state's policies, local law enforcement, the school system, and the residents of the community have rights too - to know that a neighbor has in the past committed such a crime.

As uncomfortable and unsettling as sex abuse cases are - it is better to know, and to be able to take the appropriate precautions.

None of which makes any of this easier for the parents of children who attend school with an offender, we realize.

As sad and terrible as it is that people perpetrate sexual crimes against others, it provides no satisfaction to society to seek revenge, to say that no offender is capable of being reclaimed, treated, supervised, educated - of living a worthwhile life or contributing something positive to society.

In all of this, Newell-Fonda students may learn a valuable lesson - the foregiveness that allows for a second chance.