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For school, sex offenders a big worry

More than 100 live within a mile of Lealman Intermediate, a fact never far from the principal’s mind.

By ANNE LINDBERG
Published September 16, 2006



T. PETERSBURG — The bulletin board is colorful enough to capture a student’s eye. It has a border of dark green and white stars, and the papers taped to it are neatly lined up. Students at Lealman Intermediate School pass it on their way to the principal’s office.

But the mosaic of miniature mug shots is far from a typical school display: It features the one sexual predator and 108 registered sexual offenders who live within a mile of the school.

“The first line of defense is to know who’s walking through your doors,” said principal Cheryl DiCicco .

The middle school has the highest number of sexual offenders in the surrounding area among all of Pinellas’ public elementary and middle schools.

State law does not require schools to notify parents if sexual predators or offenders live near a school. But districts generally have policies or practices urging schools to inform parents of predators. And the growing focus nationwide to track sexual offenders has increased the demand from parents that schools become more proactive about protecting children.

Many schools now routinely send fliers home in backpacks notifying parents when sexual predators have moved into a school’s neighborhood.

But Lealman Intermediate took more aggressive steps. Besides posting the pictures and addresses of the registered offenders inside the school at 4900 28th St. N, Lealman shuffled bus routes so students wouldn’t have to walk through the neighborhood.

The school, which has surveillance cameras, also was the first in Pinellas to get the Raptor technology that scans visitors’ identifications to see if they are registered sexual offenders. And deputies are a constant presence near the school, even on weekends.

The high number of sexual offenders in the area is never far from DiCicco’s mind. “It’s something we’re well aware of,’’ she said. “It’s appalling.”

***

Several sexual offenders living near Lealman Intermediate declined to be interviewed, saying only that too much is being made of their presence in the neighborhood.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Web site, 96 of them have been convicted of child-related offenses ranging from lewd and lascivious conduct to possession of child pornography. For some the site does not specify their offense.

State law requires police to notify public schools and licensed day care centers of any sexual predator living within a 1-mile radius of the school or day care. That does not include sexual offenders. Some predators and offenders are required by the conditions of their parole to live more than 1,000 feet from a school or day care. Others are not.

Parents in Hillsborough are told about sexual predators living near schools when police tell the school system, said schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

“Generally what we do is we post the information, usually in the office or in the teacher’s lounge, or we will send it home in backpacks,” Hegarty said. “Several of our schools do this on a regular basis.”

The Pinellas district “encourages” schools to inform parents when sexual predators move near a school, spokeswoman Andrea  Zahn said. The district’s Web site also provides a link to the Pinellas County Sexual Offender and Predator Search site. Florida became the first state in the nation in 1997 to offer residents a searchable database of sexual offenders’ addresses. Numbers fluctuate as offenders move.

In a densely populated county like Pinellas, it can be hard for sexual predators to find a place to live that’s far away from a school, said Sgt. Judy Vovan , a member of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Sexual Predator/Offender Tracking Unit.

And once they are off probation, she said, they have the right to live anywhere.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis last year found that 9 in 10 people in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties live within a half-mile of a sexual offender.

In 2000 when the Pinellas school district bought the land that now houses Lealman Intermediate, checking for sexual offenders living nearby was not a priority, DiCicco said.

But during construction, DiCicco checked the FDLE Web site one night and discovered how many were living nearby.
“I said, 'Oh, no,’ ” she said.

Shortly before the middle school opened in August 2005, the district wrote to the state Department of Corrections protesting the number of sexual predators and offenders — 12 —  who at the time lived within two-tenths of a mile, or 1,000 feet, from the school.

The department eventually required 10 of them to move farther away. One predator still lives within 1,000 feet of the school because a judge waived the requirement, according to a letter Thomas Gavin, chief of the Pinellas County Schools Police Department, wrote to the Lealman school advisory committee. The predator lives directly across from the school in Sunshine City, a trailer park. It’s unclear what happened to the remaining sex offender.

Back then, Gavin reassured parents and teachers on the school advisory committee that the predator and offenders who live close to the school would be closely monitored to “maximize the children’s safety.”

“While all of us would undoubtedly feel better if there were no  sexual offenders in the area, we can only do so much under the laws,” Gavin wrote.

That does not reassure all parents or guardians like Lee Chiomos,  who has custody of her 14-year-old niece, Marissa, an eighth-grader at Lealman Intermediate.

Earlier this year, Chiomos bought a home within 2 miles of the school. She thought Marissa would be able to walk to school, until she went to the FDLE site. The number of sexual offenders living in the neighborhood shocked her.

“I went, 'Oh, my god,’ ” Chiomos said. “That is horrible.”

Pinellas school district rules say students who live within 2 miles of their school have to provide their own transportation or walk. But within 2 miles of Lealman the FDLE site shows five predators and 185 offenders.

The district declared the area a “hazardous zone” and waived the rule so students like Marissa could take a bus to school, said DiCicco.

Students who do walk are still cautioned not to use 50th Avenue North, where many of the offenders live. A school resource officer keeps a close watch on those who do walk, and Pinellas County deputies regularly cruise through the neighborhood and park at the school while filling out reports, DiCicco said.

Chiomos applauds the school for its aggressive efforts, but still worries students don’t take the information seriously enough.
“Middle school students think, 'Well if somebody comes up to me I’ll just yell and kick and scream,’ and that doesn’t always work,” she said.

***

The school land is in unincorporated Lealman and was once an abandoned drive-in movie theater. The homeless once tore off pieces of the old screen to use as makeshift shelters to camp on the grounds and nearby.

Neighbors complained about the numbers of homeless people who gathered in the area at soup kitchens and a day labor office. One of the homeless programs has closed, and the day labor location has since moved.

The area still has its share of run-down trailer parks and cheap housing, which attracts the working poor and people who may find it hard to get a job, such as convicted sexual offenders.

“It’s the economics of the neighborhood,” DiCicco said. “It’s just a real economically depressed area.”

The school, she said, is looked upon as a way to help improve the neighborhood.

The Palace Mobile Home Park is four-tenths of a mile from Lealman Intermediate. The FDLE Web site last week  showed 58 offenders living in the park, which has contracted with the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition. The group is made up of local human service, faith-based and government agencies working to treat sexual offenders and help them transition back into society.

No incidents have been reported at the park, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which monitors the park.

The presence of sexual offenders does not bother Frances  Bailes , 68, who has lived in the Palace for two years. She said officers frequently check on the offenders and “if they get out of hand, they go back to prison.”

But there are no children in the park, and, Bailes conceded, “I don’t believe I’d want to live here if I had children.”

Times staff writer Letitia Stein and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 16, 2006, 23:05:18]


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