A few months ago, a parent at Trinity Lutheran Christian School, nestled in the Anaheim Hills between Disneyland and rugged wild canyons, discovered that another parent was a registered sex offender listed on the California State Attorney General’s Megan’s Law registry. He had been convicted of a sex act with a 14-year-old. The convicted parent was often on campus and frequently hosted play dates at his home. The school knew of this information and failed to inform the parents.
Earlier this year, miles from the Anaheim Hills, in one of Los Angeles’ most impoverished and heavily Latino neighborhoods, two veteran elementary school teachers were arrested and charged with committing lewd acts against children. One of them, Mark Berndt, is accused of blindfolding at least 23 children and spoon-feeding them his semen as part of a “tasting game.”
A 2004 Department of Education report estimated that “millions of students are subjected to sexual misconduct by a school employee at some time between kindergarten and the twelfth grade (K-12).”
These cases and statistics have left many parents wondering what they can do to ensure their children’s safety at school. Under Megan’s Law, a law passed in 1994 after seven-year-old Megan Kanka was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by a neighbor who had been convicted of prior sexual offenses, neither the police nor school officials are legally obligated to inform the public about the presence of a sex offender. When released from prison, convicted sex offenders must register with a local law enforcement agency upon their release from prison and their name will be listed on a public website. In California, a sex offender can be on a school campus if they have lawful business there and permission from the principal, according to the California State Attorney General’s office.
Neither the police nor school officials are legally obligated to inform the public about the presence of a sex offender, but if there is a perceived threat, law enforcement agencies may inform the public. Private citizens and organizations, such as schools, can disseminate information about the convicted offender in conjunction with a law enforcement agency. There is no federal law “regulating the employment of sex offenders in public or private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level, especially with regard to requirements and methods for conducting criminal history checks on employees,” according to a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office. About 35 states have laws restricting offenders from schools, and most states require criminal history checks, though specifics vary widely; some depending on residency and how much interaction, if any, employees will have with students, according to the same report.
Some states, including, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada and Texas, require criminal background checks only for public school employees, not private schools.
Kansas and Montana “do not appear to have any laws requiring criminal history checks for either public or private school employees,” according to the GAO.
A QUESTION OF RESPONSIBILITY
Most parents maintain it is the school’s duty to inform them if they know a convicted sex offender has access to their children. At the same time, schools fear tainting someone’s reputation or creating a panic before all of the facts are known.
As word spread at Trinity, parents demanded to know why the school did not inform them and what they planned to do about it. Meetings were called and some wanted the principal fired. Others threatened to sue. And yet, others said the Christian thing to do was to forgive and allow this man, a father of two, another chance.
Finally, the school bowed under parent pressure and sent a letter home in November of last year advising families that the convicted sex offender is no longer allowed on campus. Other parents must pick up his children from school. For parent Yasmin Davidds, herself a survivor of sexual abuse, too much is at stake to do otherwise.
“If parents want their children to go on play dates, that is up to them, but they needed to have all the relevant information,” she said. “We can be forgiving at a distance. Research shows that there is no cure for predators and sexual abusers. I am a survivor of sexual abuse, and I have gone through 20 years of therapy because of that. Some survivor’s lives are ruined because of the abuse. Nothing is worth it.”
At Miramonte Elementary school, parents were not notified until at least six months after the school knew of these alleged incidents occurring, according to Brian Claypool, whose firm, the Claypool Law Firm is representing 11 families at the school. In addition, law enforcement had investigated Berndt in 1994 when a student accused him of attempting to touch her genitals. But prosecutors at the time declined to press charges saying there was not enough evidence to support the girl’s claim.
“The school exposed these children further to someone who is a known predator and pedophile,” said Claypool. “There is no law on the book that says they can’t tell the parents. They have a moral and ethical obligation to notify the parents immediately.”
But LAUSD officials have said that they were told by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department not to notify parents because of the ongoing investigation. In the case of the 1994 accusation, they could not reprimand or fire someone who had, in the eyes of the law, done nothing wrong.
SEX OFFENDERS BY THE NUMBERS
Every state has a list of convicted sexual offenders and the numbers are daunting. In California alone, more than 63,000 persons are required to register with their local police departments once they are released from prison, according to the state’s Department of Justice website. Specific home addresses are displayed for more than 33,500 offenders and an additional 30,500 offenders are included on the site by ZIP code, city and county. Information on approximately 22,000 other offenders is not included on this site, but is known to law enforcement personnel.
However, the information listed is not specific to the crime and is usually described as a lewd act with a child. Some offenders are falsely accused and end up pleading guilty or no contest due to bad legal advice or ignorance. Some convicted sex offenders who have served their time have been run out of neighborhoods in fear of their lives. Indeed, there is a movement cropping up to ensure convicted sex offenders’ civil rights are not violated.
One convicted sex offender described his anger at the label predator following him like a scarlet letter.
“They cursed me. It’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up and the last thing on my mind before I go to sleep. When it slips my mind they make sure to remind me through… the looks from the neighbors, through my children’s harassment from the neighborhood kids and at school and the library,” he wrote on the web forum Topix. “I know you don’t believe my innocence…no one ever does.”
Experts say it is critical that school districts establish clear and visible policies on what to do in these circumstances.
“Some districts have specific policies, others do not,” said Charol Shakescraft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, who researches the topic and advises school districts. “If schools have good policies and follow them, there should be nothing for parents to worry about.”