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School Districts Struggle with Sex Offender Notification

February 07, 2002
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School Districts Struggle with Sex Offender Notification

PHOENIX (AP) - School officials would like to pass on information to parents about sex offenders living in neighborhoods near schools.

But the law says only the police can tell people where sex offenders live.

Still, schools are allowed to post notices on bulletin boards.

Principals in Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe and Mesa districts keep thick notebooks of sex-offender notifications where parents can flip through them.

They also send letters home about safety on the way to school, being careful not to mention the actual sex-offender notification.

"We have to choose our words so carefully that we can't give parents the true gravity of the situation," said Nedda Shafir, spokeswoman for the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix.

The district receives at least 20 notices a year that a sex offender has taken up residence near one of its schools.

Judi Willis of Mesa Public Schools said the district's attorney has said any effort to point out sex offenders to parents could be considered harassment or an invasion of privacy.

So teachers tell kids to go straight home from school, walk with a buddy and avoid shortcuts and strangers.

School officials only know of the presence of a sex offender because of Megan's Law, named for a New Jersey girl murdered by a convicted child molester living across the street.

A similar Arizona law took effect in 1996, allowing police to alert residents to sex offenders moving in nearby.

Sen. Dean Martin, R-Phoenix, has a bill pending in the Legislature to prohibit sex offenders on bail from going near a school.

He said he plans to amend it to include a provision that sex offenders cannot live within a quarter of a mile of a school as a condition of release from prison or parole.

"It's kind of like an alcoholic living across the street from a 24-hour liquor store," Martin said, incredulously. "The temptation is too great."

But sex offenders can choose where they live. Though as many as half of convicted child molesters strike again, none of the offenders on the community notification registry in Phoenix has re-offended.

Arizona has 12,000 registered sex offenders, including more than 5,000 in Phoenix.

Under the state's sex-offender notification law, police can notify neighbors, schools and businesses about any sex offender considered a risk. But the law applies only to those released from prison or convicted after 1996.

Phoenix police Detective Marla Wasser said the best thing parents can do to keep their children safe from molesters is to talk about it.

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