Megan's Law Goes to Class

Schools plan to tell parents where sex offenders live; is it caution or hysteria?

Parents in the East Bay cities of Fremont, Hayward, Newark, and Union City will soon receive maps -- in some cases sent home from school with their children -- showing the general locations of the homes of registered sex offenders living nearby.

The maps, to be delivered to schools this week by local police departments, represent perhaps the boldest move yet by local governments to flush sex offenders who have been released from prison into public view.

Some East Bay school officials fear the maps could provoke hysteria among parents. Others worry that children of sex offenders could become ostracized. Some fear lawsuits.

"My concern is telling kids, 'There's a child molester in one of these three houses,' " suggests Abe Hajela, legal counsel to the California School Boards Association in Sacramento. "If one of them happens to be my home, I'm going to be pretty pissed off."

But keeping parents informed about potential sex predators is worth the risk of sparking unwarranted uproar or lawsuits, says Sharon Jones, superintendent of the Fremont Unified School District.

"We had the choice of washing our hands of it and saying that it's the Police Department's problem, or risking the possibility that a sex offender is uncovered and harassed -- and I'm against that, too. I'd feel bad about that," says Jones, who drafted the policy in conjunction with a group of area superintendents and police chiefs. "But I have to tell you, I'm going to line up with the side that says, 'Get this information to the appropriate people.'

"And the appropriate people are parents."
Communities all over the country have taken steps to publicize the locations of convicted sex felons since President Clinton signed "Megan's Law" -- named after a New Jersey girl raped and murdered in 1994 -- last May. The federal law requires states to inform other residents when a convicted pedophile moves into their neighborhood. California's version of the law, passed last September, also applies to those convicted of sex crimes against adults.

This July, California police departments made public a computer database with the zip codes and photographs of about 64,000 sex offenders.

The California Attorney General's Office is now working with the School Boards Association to set guidelines for advising schools on cooperating with police departments. And school districts in some cities -- notably Roseville -- are now considering policies that would allow them to notify individual parents when particularly dangerous sex felons move into a neighborhood.

None of these efforts appear to be as aggressive as the sex offender maps the Fremont, Hayward, Newark, and Union City school districts plan to distribute, officials at the AG's Office and School Boards Association say.

It is too early to tell how the East Bay communities will react to the new sex-offender map policy; the first maps probably won't reach parents' homes until Thursday, Jones says.

But Megan's Law has provoked passionate debate elsewhere in California and around the country.

Civil libertarian attorneys and some public officials predicted that the law would spark public vigilantism, and that neighbors would hound sex offenders into a vagabond existence.

Indeed, Megan's Law has caused some problems. In Pennsylvania, a 41-year-old truck driver was attacked by vigilante neighbors while sleeping at his in-laws' house; the neighbors had mistaken him for his cousin-in-law's nephew, a registered sex offender. In Los Angeles, a 63-year-old man was humiliated when a neighbor accidentally received a letter ordering him to register as a sex offender. His crime: having consensual oral sex with a fellow sailor in the 1950s, in violation of that era's anti-sodomy laws.

In this vein, when it was announced that California's sex offender database would be made public this summer, news accounts carried dire warnings of hysteria, Old West vigilantism, and worse to come.

But the day came, and yawns ensued.
On the database's inaugural day in San Francisco this summer, only five people -- two of them news reporters -- had perused the CD-ROM by afternoon, according to contemporary news accounts.

Fremont residents were particularly disappointed by this result. Spurred by a series of Fremont flashing incidents last year, area officials began discussing ways they might get sex offender information to more parents.

"At the end of last school year, there were a number of these incidents around Fremont," says Jeannine Schneider, a member of the local school district's parent advisory committee. "Our concern was that if it happens at one, the guy moves on to another area school."

With Megan's Law as a guidepost, school superintendents from Fremont, Hayward, Union City, and Newark met with area police chiefs to develop a sex offender policy.

"The four school superintendents and the four police chiefs got together to decide what would need to be done in order to get this information out," Jones says.

The group decided it would be improper for the schools to make lists of parents' names available to police departments. Publishing information in the local newspaper was ruled out as too provocative.

The group decided to send letters to parents, signed by each city's police chief and accompanied by a map adorned with small triangles indicating the general area of homes inhabited by convicted sex offenders. School principals will be allowed to decide whether to mail the maps to parents, or send them home with children, Jones says.

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