An Unknown Resource?

Research suggests that institutional sex offender registries aren't commonly used or known -- even to offenders themselves.
March 30, 2007

New research on college and university sex offender registries -- wait, colleges and universities have their own sex offender registries?

The invisibility and underutilization of campus sex offender registries is precisely the point of the new research. Even on campuses with the databases, many sex offenders -- more than one in three, it turns out -- have absolutely no idea that their unflattering mug shots are on display somewhere in the dark depths of the public safety department's Web site.

Or at least they didn't before receiving a four-page questionnaire from two University of Louisville researchers  trying to quantify how the college students and employees listed on institutional sex offender registries perceive the sanction. Over all, the researchers report that such registries are ineffective in so far as they are largely unknown.

They find that the sex offenders who responded generally report that they are tagged as sex offenders far more often off campus than on and, in most cases, don't interact with college officials as a result of their listing. Moreover, a follow-up study suggests that very few students are aware the registries exist. And so in lieu of serving a public safety function, per their intent, the only function they're currently serving is to stigmatize those sex offenders who do know that the registries, complete with their mug shots, are out there in cyberspace, one Louisville researcher said in a Thursday interview.

“My personal take is that only negatives come of this, the negative being the stress, pressure, probably pushing some of those registered students away from their campuses, out of their educational experiences,” said Richard Tewksbury, a professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville. "Sex Offenders on Campus: University-based Sex Offender Registries and the Collateral Consequences of Registration," an article Tewksbury co-wrote with his research assistant, Matthew B. Lees, appeared in the December issue of Federal Probation, a journal of correctional philosophy and practice.

“Other students on the campus just don’t know it’s there, and just aren’t using it. So there’s just no good that comes of it,” Tewksbury said.

Campus sex offender registries are a relatively recent phenomenon, an outgrowth of the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act, which became federal law in 2000. Under the law, state-registered sex offenders who are employed by, enrolled in, or "carr[ying] out a vocation"  at a college are required to notify the institution, and colleges must issue a statement in the mandatory annual security report indicating where students can obtain information on sex offenders on campus.

Generally speaking, the authors write, colleges have complied with the law by providing lists of employees, students and contracted workers registered as sex offenders to the university police department (where students can access them by request), or by directing students to the police department maintaining the statewide registry of sex offenders. However, a small minority of colleges -- 6.7 percent of the 579 public, four-year colleges reviewed by the researchers -- have responded to the federal legislation by creating registries of their own (which in many cases link to the statewide databases).

Tewksbury and Lees found, however, that the registries don’t seem to be having much impact beyond stigmatizing those students who know they’re doubly listed on the state and campus databases. Their sample size is quite small: Only 113 people were listed on the 39 sex offender registries maintained by public colleges nationally, and of those 113 sex offenders contacted, only 26 returned complete surveys by mail. About 65 percent of respondents were students, 27 percent were employees, and about 8 percent classified themselves as both students and employees. About 96 percent were male, 92 percent were white and the mean age was around 40. About 65 percent had committed offenses against children.

Due to the low response rate, the authors note that their results should be viewed with caution. But here are some of their more striking findings:

  • 38.5 percent of registered sex offenders report that they are not aware they’re listed on the college’s registry, even though, on average, they’ve been listed for two years and 10 months (compared to an average of four years, 10 months on state databases).
  • While 73.1 percent of registered sex offenders have seen their state registry page, only 38.5 percent have done so on the university registry.
  • 68 percent of registered sex offenders report that they do not have any contact with university officials due to their listing on the registry.
  • 56.5 percent of registered sex offenders indicate they are recognized as sex offenders at least a few times a year during campus interactions, while 21.7 indicate they are recognized as a sex offender on a daily basis.
  • 52.5 percent of registered sex offenders believe that only a “few” or “some” people on campus know of their status, 4.2 percent of registered sex offenders believe that almost everyone on campus knows their status, and 16.7 percent believe no one on campus knows. Comparatively, 30.7 percent said they believe "all" or "almost all" people they know off-campus are aware.

Additionally, in an unpublished study, Lees non-randomly surveyed 611 students enrolled in general elective undergraduate classes at the University of Central Florida, which maintains a registry, and the University of Louisville, which does not. At Louisville, 80 percent of students “had no idea” whether the university maintained its own sex offender registry, Lees said. At UCF, only about 10 percent of students knew the database existed, and only about 6 to 7 percent had used it.

“Hopefully we can get those numbers up. We need to be around 90 percent. That would be a better number than 10 percent for sure,” said Cpl. James Roop, the spokesman for Central Florida's police department. At UCF, officers regularly explain the registry during new faculty and staff orientation, and also ask parents to pass along the information to the students during parent orientation sessions. The registry is also mentioned in the annual security report required under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which the police department has typically distributed by mail to about 60,000 faculty, students and staff. (The department is switching to an electronic distribution this coming academic year).

“You just wonder if there’s a break-down in communication somewhere,” Roop said. He added that he’d be double-checking his PowerPoint presentations for orientation sessions to ensure that all include a reference to the registry.

“The schools that have registries, they just stick them up on their Web sites, they don’t tell people they’re there,” said Lees, a master's student at the University of Louisville. “If they’re going to use them, then they should be doing a better job of publicizing it. . . .That’s the whole point, the whole policy behind the law that makes them do it: It’s to make students better informed about what’s happening on campus.”

“There’s definitely potential there for these registries to have an impact and be effective. The problem right now is that research has shown there’s significant collateral consequences and stigmatization associated with registries,” he said. “That might not be so bad if everyone was using these and everyone knew so they could protect themselves but, the fact is, all this is doing is stigmatizing people without anyone knowing.”    

“As far as stigmatizing sex offenders, that’s an oxymoron, if I ever heard one. They stigmatize themselves," responded Catherine C. Bath, executive director of Security On Campus. She added, however, that she did agree with Lees' conclusion that institutions maintaining these sex offender registries should better publicize them. “This is just one more example where the public could be more aware of a tool to protect themselves," she said.

The Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act, after all, Bath said, is relatively young, and it's not surprising that students at those institutions with registries may be slow to catch on to the resource. “Having the public be more aware, that this is available if they choose to look at it, is really all it’s about. But to say that the registry does not serve a purpose -- it’s a tool, people can use it and not use it," she said.

“I would applaud the universities that are taking this upon themselves to compile them for their university communities.”


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