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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

SCC struggles to deal with sex offenders

Washington’s community colleges operate on the principle that virtually anyone is welcome – even if you don’t have a high school degree, they’ll usually help you get one.

But the idea of “open enrollment” is colliding with questions over sex offenders in the classroom at Spokane Community College, where 20 registered sex offenders are enrolled, and where faculty and staff are asking the administration to clarify their rights and responsibilities.

“The problem is being passed on to the faculty,” one professor told Terri McKenzie, vice president for student services, at a forum Tuesday.

The biggest issue is the question of notifying other students. The school’s policy does not call for students to be alerted when they’re in a class with a sex offender, but officials say they’re considering changing that, given the recent discussion on campus and rising number of offenders enrolled.

“We have bumbled through this with good intentions,” McKenzie told a group of about 40 faculty and staff members Tuesday. “And we’ll continue to bumble through, hopefully a little better.”

McKenzie, who monitors sex offenders at SCC, said the number of sex offenders enrolling has risen in recent years – as the number of offenders required to register with law enforcement agencies has grown. She said that when she came to the school in 1999, she encountered the school’s first Level 3 sex offender – the riskiest of three categories, based on the likelihood of offending again.

“Then a couple of years later, we had a second,” she said. “In the last two or three years, that’s grown exponentially.”

There are now 20 sex offenders registered at SCC – seven Level 3’s, two Level 2’s and 11 Level 1’s, she said. A Level 2 offender was expelled this week for viewing pornographic material on a library computer, she said. There’s one Level 1 offender enrolled at Spokane Falls Community College.

SCC hasn’t had a recent case of a sex offense on campus, but the issue came to the forefront after an instructor raised questions about how to handle an offender in his class this fall. It’s also been fueled by intense interest in the arrest of Joseph E. Duncan III, the registered sex offender implicated in the slayings of four Coeur d’Alene family members.

This fall, a Level 3 offender enrolled in an English course at SCC. His instructor – who declined to be interviewed – was concerned about having him in his classroom, in particular because the class included Running Start students, who are high schoolers earning college credit.

The school placed him in correspondence-style classes and has banned him from campus, after he resisted following rules set by the school, McKenzie said.

SCC put together a panel discussion with law enforcement officials Tuesday to address questions and concerns that arose in the wake of that incident. Attempts to interview faculty members about the issue have been unsuccessful this week, though instructors did ask questions at the forum.

“We have no idea, really, what to do,” one said.

In particular, instructors said, they wondered how much they should be telling their students about the presence of sex offenders in the classroom, and why those decisions are falling to them.

McKenzie said SCC is putting together a panel to review the school’s policies on sex offender notification, and is planning to provide more guidance to instructors in the future. She said it’s likely that the school will begin notifying all students of sex offenders’ presence in the classroom.

That may help allay the fears of most students, but it may also present obstacles to offenders who are trying to get on with their lives, officials said.

Dave Bentley, a detective with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, said people often have the mistaken impression that sex offenders commit another crime 90 percent of the time – when it’s really more like 12 percent to 14 percent.

And Bob Bromps, who oversees sex offenders for the Department of Corrections, said that notification to other students may deter offenders who are trying to change their lives – and that could mean they’re nudged back toward crime.

In any case, he said, sex offenders are a part of the community that aren’t going away. “The majority are going to be out here amongst us,” he said.

Several members of the SCC student government could not be reached for comment Wednesday – a day that college campuses are nearly deserted before Thanksgiving.

Washington has more than 18,000 registered sex offenders, and they’re required by law to notify the sheriff if they intend to enroll in college.

At SCC, when school officials learn of such an enrollment they add the information to binders that are available to anyone on campus. If the offenders are levels 2 or 3, instructors and other relevant staffers are notified. Students are usually not told – though McKenzie said they can be if circumstances dictate.

The sex offender students’ progress is monitored regularly, and McKenzie meets with them periodically.

The open enrollment policy at the state’s community colleges allows officials to deny enrollment only if the student would be disruptive or unable to benefit from the classes.

A professor at the Tuesday forum asked why the school didn’t simply declare all Level 3 offenders – those considered the most likely to commit another sex offense – to be a disruptive presence.

McKenzie said she knew several sex offenders who were attending their classes, following the rules and earning good grades – making an honest effort to change.

“I don’t know how we justify those people as disruptive,” she said.

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