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A College's Delicate 'Balancing Act'

January 19, 2006

At the start of each academic quarter, Edward sits down with professors in his courses at Spokane Community College and lays out the unpleasant facts: He spent two and a half years in jail for molesting boys, he's in recovery, and he's getting a higher education to try to piece his life back together.

By the time he contacts the instructors, they've already learned from Spokane administrators that they have a convicted sex offender in their classes, part of the community college's disclosure policy. But Edward -- that's not his real name -- wants to give the professors a face to face chance to "ask any questions, share any concerns they might have" about having him in their classrooms.

Selfishly, he says, the disclosure "also gives the instructor a chance to see me as a human being instead of a name in a letter."

Since 1998, state law in Washington has required sex offenders to tell a college's officials when they seek to enroll in the institution, and administrators at the colleges are then obliged to make information about the identities and crimes of offenders widely available to students or staff members (as Spokane does here). Spokane Community College's current policy is to inform the instructors in all courses taken by the most serious offenders. What the professors do with that information is largely up to them; while they are allowed to divulge it to students, most don't, using it instead to decide how to shape their class discussions, to handle group projects, and the like.

Now, though, officials at Spokane are contemplating going further, perhaps by telling all students in courses taken by sex offenders that a convicted criminal is in their midst. Several factors are driving the possible change: an increase in the known number of convicted sex offenders enrolled at Spokane, heightened awareness in the region because of high profile recent cases of sexual child abuse, and the appearance on the campus of one particularly unpleasant student/convicted sex offender, who has raised the perceived threat level for some professors and students.

At an institution such as Spokane that, like other community colleges, takes seriously its tradition and mission of open access, the discussion is very different from what it would be at many private institutions. But even an open enrollment institution has its limits, and campus officials are clearly wrestling with competing interests.

"The question, for me and the college, is where should we stand on the principle of 'everybody comes'?" says Terri M. McKenzie, who as vice president for student and instructional services at Spokane is the point person both for the college's dealings with sex offenders and the review of its policies. "How do we continue to provide availability of education as a life transforming experience, for all people, and still, at the same time, assure as much as possible the safety of all our students?"

Scrutiny and Monitoring Grows

In the last decade or so, state and federal governments have become much more aggressive about requiring the collection and disclosure of information about convicted sex offenders. Most of this impetus for this campaign has come from sexual assaults on (and murders of) children, and while occasional concerns have been raised about the potential trampling of the privacy and other rights of the sex offenders themselves, those considerations have been overwhelmed by the desire of parents (and, in turn, their elected representatives) to protect their children.

In 2000, Congress enacted a law, the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act, that required sex offenders who were already required to register with their states to also inform officials at any institution where they sought to work or enroll as students. The law also requires college officials to clearly publicize where and how students and staff members can find information about registered sex offenders on their campuses.

But that's as far as the law goes, leaving campus officials with a lot of latitude about whether to admit sex offenders who apply as students and how to treat those who enroll.

Brett A. Sokolow, a lawyer and president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, which advises colleges on student affairs issues, says that many of his clients are seeking advice about whether they should or shouldn't admit convicted sex offenders (though he says he gets more questions about whether colleges should hire sex offenders as employees). Selective private institutions, in particular, Sokolow says, are disinclined to open their doors to students who he says have clear potential to put their peers at risk.

"They want to determine whether that's the right fit for the campus, and they see it as a fox in a henhouse situation in many cases," he says. "As I see it, when it comes to selective campuses, and people who are convicted as violent sex offenders, this is why God invented distance education. I want students to have an education, but I don’t think a residential population is necessarily where it should be happening."

The picture may be very different at a campus like Spokane Community College, which under state law has an “open door” admissions policy and is “often a place where people will start fresh” in their lives, says McKenzie, the two-year institution’s vice president.

“Most of the sex offenders we’ve seen are some of the most serious and concerned students we have,” she says. “They really want to turn their lives around. They believe themselves to be scum of the earth; the high majority of them are deeply offended by what they did, and they want a chance to be a different person.”

McKenzie describes as “amazing” the progress she’s seen some of the sex offenders who’ve come through the college make, having “gotten out, gotten good jobs and become good members of society. I wish I could say that about all of my students,” she adds wistfully.

But McKenzie is quick to say that as a “mother of five” who is responsible for the safety of all of the community college’s 8,000 students, she’s “not a soft touch.” As the administrator charged with carrying out the college’s existing policies, which were established in 1998, McKenzie imposes restrictions on sex offenders based on the kind and seriousness of their crimes; offenders who molested children, for instance, are barred from going anywhere near the campus’s child care center, and others are restricted from using the fitness center. (McKenzie deals unapologetically with those who violate the policies. One sex offender was expelled this winter for viewing pornography on a computer in the campus library.)

More serious offenders -- those state law calls “level 2 or 3”, deemed to have the highest risk of committing another crime -- must have their class schedules approved, so that McKenzie can ensure, for instance, that a one-time child molester will not be exposed to the significant number of high school students who participate in Spokane’s dual enrollment Running Start program. McKenzie also notifies the instructors in all courses taken by Level 3 offenders about the students, their crimes and any limitations placed on them by the college.

A Push for More Disclosure

That system has served the college reasonably well, McKenzie says, but circumstances over the past year -- on and around the campus -- have prompted a review. The case of Dylan and Shasta Groene, a brother and sister who were allegedly abducted, assaulted and, in Dylan’s case, killed by a convicted sex offender in neighboring Idaho, sharply raised awareness and concern about sex offenders throughout the Northwest, and especially in eastern Washington, 30 miles from the scene of the kidnapping and the murders of Dylan and his parents.

Second, the number of sex offenders enrolled at Spokane Community College has risen, McKenzie says, from just one or two Level 3 offenders a few years ago to seven now (and to a total of 20 convicted offenders all told). Reasons for the increase are unclear, though most observers believe it has more to do with heightened disclosure than with any actual rise in the number of offenders seeking an education.

Lastly, one of the sex offenders now enrolled at Spokane had as what McKenzie calls his “target population” women between the ages of 16 and 53 -- also the community college’s target population. He is also, all parties agree, enormously difficult to deal with.

“Our faculty were more frequently finding themselves being informed by me that they had a Level 3 offender in their class, and they didn’t know what to do about it,” says McKenzie. “With more offenders on campus, and more awareness about them, we needed to look at whether we need to provide clearer assistance about what you do as a professor and how to educate all of our students. What’s happening, and in my mind it’s a really good thing, is that this is affording us an opportunity to reflect on how we do things.”

The discussion has unfolded over the last couple of months. The college has held forums in which students and employees asked questions and raised concerns, both of college officials and of Bob Bromps, who works for the Spokane County Department of Corrections (and is Edward's parole officer).

Some students and faculty members have advocated a more aggressive approach in which the college would automatically tell all students in a course that a convicted sex offender is among them, or even require the institution to disclose the offenders' identities to all students, not just make information about them available to those who seek it. But McKenzie says the college may be likelier to adopt a more flexible policy in which it might give faculty members more information about offenders, and urge them to share that information more widely, if the circumstances warrant it.

Right now, for instance, the college is restricting one Level 3 offender to online-only courses, and barring him from campus without permission from McKenzie’s office. “We would also want, in cases like this, to contact each student in his class with information about this man,” if Spokane officials were to decide that students should know to be on guard in an online chat room, McKenzie says. “New procedures would allow us more flexibility in notification when it is warranted as necessary,” she adds.

Bromps, the parole officer, says he understands the desire for more and better disclosure and the ironclad need for Spokane officials to keep all students there as safe and secure as possible.

But college administrators have a “huge balancing act,” he says, because getting an education can so clearly help convicted sex offenders rebuild their lives. “Instability is a trigger, a risk factor that places me and the community at risk,” Bromps says, and “college provides that opportunity for stability,” opening up “additional doors for people who have had a tendency to bounce from job to job.”

Bromps is not a Pollyanna; he acknowledges that some sex offenders might pursue a higher education looking for a handout. “There are certain individuals in this world that look for a freebie,” and see higher education as a “chance to get some financial aid, pay rent for the next six months, and not do very much.”

The vast majority of the sex offenders he’s worked with, though, have recognized how lucky they are to be in college and done everything possible to be good citizens, Bromps says. He cites an example of one student who called him with a “huge problem”: A computer course he was taking had a rule that no “minors” were to come to class. Yet one of the other students, lacking day care, brought a child to class. The sex offender, Bromps says, not wanting to take any chances, told the parole officer that he planned to drop the course. Bromps stepped in and spoke to the instructor, who acknowledged the policy and told the other student not to bring the child to class.

“He was willing to drop the class and potentially negatively impact his own education,” says Bromps. “Many of them really want to pursue development of a structure, something positive and pro-social that provides that continuity for bettering their lives.”

Edward knows that he’s lucky to be getting another chance at a life. He is a Level 3 convict considered to have a high likelihood of molesting children again, given that “I have a history of reoffending from childhood, and I had never been caught until this one charge.” In his desire to “change my life,” he says, “I told them about everything I’d ever done.”

Those crimes were “very heinous,” he says, and “I understand why” some students might be uncomfortable about being in class with him, and why the college needs to monitor and, where appropriate, restrict his behavior.

A policy that forced sex offenders to disclose their identity to all students, though -- rather than just making it available to those who seek it out -- would essentially make it impossible for him and others like him to get a fresh start. "We'll be outcasts on the campus, and targets," Edward says. He is hopeful that McKenzie and other Spokane officials won't go that route, allowing him to finish his associate degree and move on, next year, to Eastern Washington University.

Says Edward: “We just want a chance to go to school and find a new way to live.”

 

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