Who’s On Your Campus? Have You Checked The Sex-Offender List Lately?

Note: The following guest post was written by Suzanne Bogdan, regional managing partner at the law firm of Fisher & Phillips in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, office. She chairs the firm’s Education Practice Group, providing counsel to private institutions. She also works with accrediting agencies, including the National Association of Independent Schools.

While school administrators monitor their employee and job applicant rolls for sex offenders, they face another challenge: discovering and restricting sex offenders who are employee relatives, volunteers, contractors, even individuals authorized to bring students to and from campus.

As a practical matter, many schools do not conduct criminal-background checks on these people. Nor do they compare names and photo IDs of visitors with information on a sexual-offender/predator website.

Does a school have a duty to notify parents and employees that an individual with access to campus is a sex offender? Should administrators suggest to parents that they not send their children to someone’s house or a non-school event because there’s a likelihood that a predator will attend?

The answers are not simple. The school could inform its community by posting the offender’s photo on campus, but that individual may have legal rights that prevent him or her from being publicly identified.

Identifying sex offenders

There are numerous and fairly straightforward processes for school administrators to identify and restrict sex offenders who are not employees but have access to the school’s campus and its students:

  1. Subject all non-employees visiting or performing work at the school to a search on an established sex-offender database, such as the one run by the Department of Justice. The FBI also has a list of state registries. If the school has the resources, it can swipe driver licenses and run them against an offender database. To be effective, the school must restrict access to one or two campus entrances so that no one slips by.
  2. Alternately, assign an employee sworn to confidentiality or hire an outside company to check names that the school collects against those databases. This once-a-year review is not as effective, but it is less expensive. The success of this approach depends on having complete records of employee spouses, partners and relatives and of people authorized to drop off or pick up a student.
  3. Compare the names of coaches, volunteers and others who are likely to have unsupervised access to children to a sex-offender list. That includes employees of any firm that operates a program on campus. The best practice is to require individuals to submit to a criminal background check as a condition of engaging in school-sponsored activity, such as a sport.

School administrators often wonder how wide to cast a net to find people with unsupervised access. The best advice is to investigate any individual who can interact with or encounter children on campus without having a cleared adult present. That includes a parent who volunteers for the school play, an adult who leaves his or her parked car to drop off or pick up a child, and a contractor’s employee who uses a children’s restroom.

Lines of defense

Administration efforts to uncover sexual predators will likely produce a disquieting number of individuals. Some may be relatives of school employees, even their spouses. How can this happen? Employees may keep their spouse or partner’s secret because they thought the conviction was in error.

That reasoning absolves no one. As a matter of school policy, each current and prospective employee should be required to report to an administrator any information about a potential campus visitor who is a sex offender or is facing criminal or civil action alleging inappropriate sexual activity with a minor. Employees who fail to follow that rule should be terminated.

Once administrators identify a sex offender with a connection to its school, they must take action to remove or restrict that individual from the campus and school-related activities. This is where the lawyers come in.

The process starts with a scripted conversation with the sex offender, followed by a letter that legal counsel has reviewed. The letter specifies restrictions on that person’s access to campus and school activities.

Some parents will object. They may say that they rely on this person to transport their child to and from school. They may want the individual to see their child playing a sport or appearing in a performance. Graduation brings families together, and parents will complain when the school tries to prevent a cherished relative from attending.

Address each situation as it arises while maintaining a uniform policy. An attorney can be of great value here in crafting a response to each challenge to school rules. For example, a family member may be granted access, but only if the individual registers with an administrator upon arrival, agrees to supervision and restrictions on movement around campus, and agrees to leave when asked.

Protecting students from sexual offenders/predators is not a closed-door process. Parents must be informed of school policy regarding employees, relatives and visitors.

The best approach: Explain the school’s procedures such as criminal-background checks on employees in a school manual. That section should include a disclaimer that while the school makes every effort to keep predators off campus, it cannot say whether it’s safe for children to associate with parents and other adults away from school. The manual should direct parents to reputable websites such as the federal government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway page on sexual abuse where they can learn about sex offenders and how to protect their children from them.

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