July 17, 2006 in City

Colleges dealing with sex offenders

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Fast facts

Community colleges, with their open enrollment policies and range of programs for nontraditional students, typically have dealt with more sex offenders than universities. WSU had two registered sex offenders enrolled last year. In the CCS system last spring, 20 offenders were enrolled, and six of those are level 3, considered the highest risk to commit another sex crime. That’s among an overall student population of almost 16,000.

Community Colleges of Spokane is moving toward requiring sex offenders to set up “safety plans” and provide information about their cases before enrolling.

The proposals would make it easier to reject applications from sex offenders or to expel them if problems arise, officials say. The proposals were developed after professors raised concerns about sex offenders on campus, sharing classes in some cases with high school students working on college credits.

The rules stop short of notifying students when they are sharing a classroom with a registered sex offender, in most cases. Instead, they call for information on all registered sex offenders to be available at several points on campus and for instructors to encourage students to be “mindful” of their personal safety, without mentioning sex offenders specifically. The proposed safety plans also would outline any specific restrictions or limitations that would apply to an individual offender.

“It is a general statement rather than a specific statement about sex offenders,” said Terri McKenzie, vice president of student and instructional services at Spokane Community College.

The rules await final approval by Chancellor Gary Livingston but are expected to be in place for fall quarter.

Officials at CCS and other colleges and universities say they must strike a difficult balance between campus safety and the rights of sex offenders to an education, given that they have served their sentences and may be trying to change their lives.

“It’s not one-sided,” said Jim Perez, executive vice president of the Institute for Extended Learning and chairman of the committee that developed the rules. “We want safe teaching, working and learning environments, but we’re also trying to respect the rights of these people and their right to get an education and improve their life.”

Earlier this year, Washington State University admitted it made a mistake by placing a level 2 sex offender – considered a moderate risk to commit another sex crime – into a dorm with a student who was not informed of the offender’s background.

The 18-year-old man had pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree child molestation as a 14-year-old, and he approached WSU officials about his status before enrolling.

The incident prompted a review of procedures regarding sex offenders, said Al Jamison, interim vice president of student affairs. The university is moving toward having more discussion and planning with offenders they enroll, and is exploring whether it can legally reject a student only on the grounds of being a registered sex offender.

Though campus police are notified when a sex offender registers in Whitman County, administrators and other officials have not always been aware of an offender’s presence until he is enrolled, Jamison said.

Part of the new procedures at CCS involve someone at the colleges cross-checking student lists against sex offender registries, which are maintained by county sheriff’s departments and available online.

Concerns surrounding sex offenders have intensified recently, fueled by the Groene kidnappings and killings in Coeur d’Alene. The suspect in that case, Joseph Duncan, was a convicted sex offender and a fugitive on a child-molestation charge in Minnesota.

Lawmakers in Washington state passed more than a dozen bills last session aimed at sex offenders, expanding monitoring programs, raising minimum sentences and ratcheting up penalties for offenders who don’t register with local authorities. A new law made it possible to ban sex offenders from public areas like parks, swimming pools and playgrounds.

Idaho lawmakers expanded the limits for payments to crime victims for counseling to $25,000 from $2,500. They also approved more frequent monitoring and regular verification of sex offenders, but stopped short of approving measures to require lifetime monitoring of some sex offenders.

The issue came to a head last November at the community colleges, when professors said the colleges hadn’t done enough to inform faculty about the presence of sex offenders and how to handle them. “We have no idea, really, what to do,” one said at a meeting called to discuss the issue.

Dennis Keen, the chairman of the English Department at SCC, said he was among those with concerns. He was named to a committee that spent the last several months developing the rules and says he feels that the colleges have responded well to faculty concerns.

“There’s no fail-safe approach to stopping someone from reoffending, and there has to be a general awareness by the public to be prudent,” he said.

Gavin Tucker, president of the Associated Student Council at SCC, said he thought the new rules strike the right balance of providing student information and not disrupting classes. He said that a more specific identification of a sex offender to classmates wouldn’t be good for anyone.

“That would really take away from the learning experience, for both the offender and the classmates,” he said.

One major concern involved high-schoolers who earn college credit by taking CCS classes. The new rules say CCS will make “every effort” to avoid putting those Running Start students in classes with sex offenders.

There are also public postings on campus about the possible presence of sex offenders, given that children of all ages can be at CCS facilities for programs such as Head Start and special events.

The committee was made up of faculty members, administrators and staff from the three components of CCS – Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College and the Institute for Extended Learning.

The committee talked to a wide range of people – including a couple of sex offenders who have returned to school. The offenders told committee members that they understood the concerns, and favored being very clear about the rules with everyone involved.

“They didn’t think it would be helpful to stand up and point them out to a classroom of people,” McKenzie said.

She said law enforcement officials consulted by the committee agreed that in most cases a policy of identifying every sex offender to every classmate would be counterproductive.

“It means the sex offender really can’t be successful because they become a target in a whole different way,” she said. This year, the school had a sex offender who was allowed to take only online courses, and the other students in the course were notified about his presence and his identity, McKenzie said. In another case, a sex offender was in the cast of a school play. The other cast members were notified.

“It was appropriate to do that,” she said. “They were meeting after their regular class period, and they were entitled to that information.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email