The front door flies open, and behind it your second-grader strides through with an “I can’t wait to get outside and play” look on his face.
While listening to a elaborated description of the day’s school lunch, you reach for the Tuesday/Thursday manila envelope jammed full of the school’s weekly information for parents.
One page describes plans for the next school fund-raiser, another carries calendar updates for the coming week – pretty standard stuff.
But as you pull out a third page, you find a letter from the Richardson Independent School District informing you that a convicted sex offender has just moved into your neighborhood.
RISD’s letter includes no picture, no name, no street address, no telephone number, no social security number, and no driver’s license number, and no details about the crime this person committed.
The letter simply states the convicted sex offender’s age, gender, the RISD high school quadrant and Zip Code where he or she lives, along with the name of the offense of which he or she was convicted.
After staring out the window for a moment, you feel for the kitchen chair behind you and sit down, lost in thought.
“Bye. I’m going to go ride my bike,” your child calls out, closing the door behind.
The New Policy
This scenario will be played out again and again in our neighborhood in the coming days as RISD’s new sex-offender notification policy takes effect.
“None of us are eager to do this,” says school board member Anne Barab.
“But we feel this is our legal responsibility to comply with the spirit of the law.”
The district is responding to Ashley’s Law, Texas Revised Civil Statutes, Article 6252-13c.1, which became effective Sept. 1, 1995. The law requires the local police department to notify each school district’s superintendent of convicted sex offenders who move into the school district.
Since August 1991, 1,036 sex offenders have registered with the Dallas Police Department, says Sgt. Patrick B. Welsh, who works in the assault section of the Dallas Police Department’s Crimes Against Persons Division.
Since Ashley’s Law became effective in 1995, 131 sex offenders have been reported to school districts in the City of Dallas.
According to RISD, 13 sex offenders have been registered within the school district. (RISD declined to tell the Advocate how many sex offenders, if any, live in the Lake Highlands High School area.)
Under law, newspapers with general circulation in the area that the sex offender lives are required to print information about the person (the City of Dallas pays the newspapers’ publishing fee and is reimbursed by the sex offender).
The information is usually found in the Dallas Morning News’ classified section under the “notices” headline, Welsh says.
Although Ashley’s law doesn’t require school districts to forward the information to the community, the Plano, Allen and Lewisville school districts have adopted notification policies similar to RISD’s.
Other school districts, such as Carrollton-Farmers Branch, have decided to notify only staff members.
The RISD letters will be forwarded to parents according to their location within RISD’s four high school quadrants: Lake Highlands, Berkner, Richardson and J.J. Pearce.
If you want more information about the sex offender – including a name and street address – you can make a written request to the Dallas Police Department, Welsh says.
The additional information isn’t free, though: The fee runs anywhere from $20 to $50, depending on the scope of information requested, Welsh says.
Anne Barab is a mother of two 14-year-olds and one 16-year-old attending RISD schools. As a mother, Barab believes a little information about a sex offender goes a long way.
“I do not intend to call the police department. I do not intend to drive down the street and look for the person,” Barab says.
But Barab also is a member of RISD’s board of trustees, and she voted – along with the other six trustees – to support the sex-offender notification policy knowing that any amount of information will create anxiety among neighborhood parents.
But the law placed RISD in a “no-win situation,” Barab says.
“We all know our world is dangerous. But we think our corner is safe,” she says.
“There will be a sense of powerlessness: I can’t do anything with this information to protect my family,” Barab says.
Ted Moulton, RISD executive director of extended programs and also a grandfather, says he would use the information reasonably if he was informed a sex offender lived near his grandchildren.
“I would file the information away and wouldn’t overreact to it. My antennas are just going to be up a little more,” Moulton says.
The feedback the board received indicated RISD residents didn’t want all available information about a neighborhood sex offender, Moulton says.
If a parent really wants the information, he or she can always go through the police department to obtain it, Moulton says.
“Putting people on a higher alert” is the real purpose of the notification policy, Moulton says.
Barab says she doesn’t know how parents will react when the first letter goes out.
But she knows there will be a reaction.
“We are the messenger,” Barab says. “I think we’re going to see reaction to this in ‘kill-the-messenger’ syndrome.”
Barab says she didn’t vote for the policy as a means for parents to pinpoint an offender and run him or her out of town – which Barab says may be some people’s first reaction.
Instead, RISD decided to distribute limited information to make parents become a little more cautious and tell their kids to do the same, Barab says.
Even if a child is assaulted by a registered sex offender, the law precludes the school district from liability – regardless of whether the district distributed the information, Welsh says.
“We felt if something did occur, and parents found out that we could have notified them, parents would be very upset,” Moulton says.
So it’s not liability the school district is worried about – it’s children’s safety, Barab says.
“I feel what the schools are going to be dealing with is citizens with feelings of helplessness,” Barab says.
The Seattle Experience
Seattle Police Detective Bob Shilling has watched his community react for six years to public information about sex offenders.
Washington state passed a law in 1990 legalizing bulletins alerting communities about sex offenders, including the person’s picture, name, age, weight and a brief description of the offense, Shilling says.
The bulletins are posted in schools, libraries, newspapers and sent to neighboring residents’ homes, Shilling says.
“When it first started, there was some over-reaction,” Shilling says.
For example, a group of people in Snohomish County burned down the home of one sex offender, Shilling says.
Since then, there have been two other minor incidents – one sex offender found a note on his house saying “move or die,” and another sex offender answered his door one day and “had his face punched in” by an angry resident, Shilling says.
“People understand now they have a chance of losing this law by doing something stupid like that,” Shilling says.
RISD Superintendent Carolyn Bukhair doesn’t want to see similar situations occur in RISD.
“You don’t want it to turn into a witch hunt for someone, but on the other hand, a law was passed for the safety of our children,” Bukhair says.
Moulton says he has no problem with sex offenders losing their privacy because of information released to the public about their whereabouts and past.
A crime of that nature has severe consequences, even after a jail term, Moulton says.
A sex offender may lose his or her privacy through public notification, but an assaulted child will carry the emotional wreckage for the rest of his or her life, Moulton says.
Who Is A Threat?
In the City of Dallas, there are about 1,400 child sex abuse cases reported each year, says Dallas Police Sgt. B.A. Fassett, with the child exploitation division.
A typical pedophile will commit, on average, 117 acts of molestation before being caught, says Claudia Byrns, executive director of Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center.
Lynne McLean, who previously worked for Child Protective Services and managed a sexual abuse group treatment center, says research isn’t clear about whether treatment can help sex offenders. Statistics show that 4 to 8 percent of sex offenders who have completed treatment and been incarcerated will be re-arrested for sexually abusing children, McLean says.
She says it’s difficult to compile statistics about how many sex offenders repeat their crimes.
“It’s not like it’s black and white,” McLean says. “It’s hard to know if they’ve done anything if they’re not re-arrested. With some, you can make a difference.”
In Texas, treatment for sex offenders is required under law if a convicted offender receives probation, says Ron Goethals, the director of Dallas County Community Supervision and Corrections Department.
The Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center handles the County’s most severe child molestation cases. And according to the Center’s 1995 statistics, victims knew the suspect in 96 percent of child sexual assault cases, Byrns says.
Forty-nine percent of the cases involve a father-figure, 12 percent involve a mother-figure, 21 percent involve another family member, 10 percent involve the child’s acquaintances, and 4 percent involve the child’s caretakers, Byrns says.
Barab and Moulton agree most child sex abuse is committed by someone the child knows – it’s rare that a sex offender lurches out of the bushes to grab an unfamiliar child.
“There is so much hand-ringing. It’s so tragic and so heinous, and yet the great majority of situations like that are with people known to the child,” Barab says.
But the unlikely does happen, Moulton says, and when it does, the impact is massive.
“It’s sort of like an airplane crash. It’s the safest way to travel, but when they crash, they have a huge impact.”
A Parent’s Point Of View
“I would probably just sit down with my kids and tell them I got a notice,” says Betsy Halford, the PTA president of Merriman Park Elementary School.
Halford, the mother of a sixth- and ninth-grader, says she would tell her children to be a little bit more careful.
Recently, news of RISD’s sex offender letters reached Merriman’s PTA board meeting, Halford says.
“None of the parents seemed unduly concerned about it,” Halford says.
“I suppose there will be people that are upset,” Halford says. “But personally, I think this is all the district can do. They’re fulfilling their responsibility.”
As Ted Moulton stood in front of the school board several weeks ago to discuss the issue, the trustees took several deep breaths after the policy proposal was read.
Barab was among the first to speak, saying she worried RISD will be bombarded with calls from panicked parents.
Other trustees asked a few questions and then sat back to consider the proposal.
“What do you expect the community to do when they get these letters?” Barab asked.
“I don’t know,” Moulton responded.