The PTA dad? He could be a sex offender
Florida laws keep sex offenders away from schools - unless they have a child at the school. Area parents want to change that.
By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published January 14, 2007
As school began, Annette Miller brought her two children to Forest Ridge Elementary in Citrus County for a welcome back dinner.
The PTA mom said she was excited about meeting new families and her kids making new friends. But as she made her way through the crowd, shaking hands with other parents, Miller recognized two faces that sent a chill down her spine: registered sex offenders she had seen on the Citrus County Sheriff's Office Web site.
"What are these men doing here?" Miller recalls thinking. "Our children are not safe around them."
Miller learned the men were the parents of students and she nearly hit the floor.
Despite tougher security measures to keep sexual offenders out of schools, there is no law banning parents convicted of sex crimes from visiting schools their children attend. They can visit classrooms and attend most activities if they have visitation or custodial rights, the conditions of their release allow it, or they're no longer on probation.
Open-door policies at all five school districts in west central Florida area allow any parents to have lunch with their child in a cafeteria or meet with a teacher on campus. The same goes for after-school activities like soccer games, movie nights or school plays. And while school officials are supposed to keep watch at all times, they concede the task can be tricky if parents show up unannounced.
Families like the Millers, ever more vigilant after recent cases involving pedophiles preying on children, want schools to ban all sex offenders, no matter the nature of the crime or the parent's subsequent record.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he supports such a measure.
"The courts may have decided that a sex offender can visit his child but let's not do it when there are 1,000 children around," he said. "The last thing we need is another headline that we can avoid by making schools off-limits to those individuals."
Emilio Johnston, a registered sex offender and father of four children, cringes at the possibility that he could no longer see his two older kids at school. Johnston, who was a PTA dad last year, said he isn't supervised when he comes on campus now.
Johnston was 18 when he was arrested and accused of having sex with his girlfriend, who was 15. He pleaded no contest to a second-degree felony charge of lewd or lascivious conduct and received three years' probation. He was ordered to register as a sex offender. Now 24, Johnston is married and works as a plumber to support his family.
His wife, Amber, 28, said he has been a model parent to her two boys from a previous relationship. The sixth-grader and second-grader attend schools in Inverness.
"We go to every parent-teacher conference and open house, and when I have to work he takes the kids himself," she said. "You have no idea how wonderful it is to have a husband who wants to be involved and take care of his children."
Emilio Johnston said it's unfair that society lumps him in the same category as pedophiles, who he said "deserve to be put away and locked up for good." He regrets his mistake, he said, and feels he has more than paid his debt to society.
"I've been living my life straight," he said. If he was banished from his children's schools, "they would be the ones who'd suffer," Johnston said.
Nationwide, only a few districts have banned sex offender parents from school campuses.
In November, the School Board in Fargo, N.D., adopted a policy that prohibits all sex offenders - including parents - from going on school property or into venues where sports or other school activities take place.
That same month, the Granite Board of Education in Granite, Utah, approved a draft policy forbidding sex offender parents from just "showing up" on campuses. Under the new rules, those parents must make appointments before coming to school and a principal monitors their attendance at school activities.
In both states, the crackdowns came after parents complained about sex offenders having access to classrooms.
Officials in west central Florida school districts say it would be unwise to ban parents convicted of sex offenses from their children's schools, especially when schools put a premium on parental involvement.
"If you're a parent we don't deny you the right to participate in your child's education," said Steve Hegarty, Hillsborough schools spokesman.
They also say a stigma could fall on the children of sex offenders.
"First and foremost, we are going to be very sensitive about the emotional well-being of that child," said Andrea Zahn, Pinellas schools spokeswoman. "We don't want to punish a child for the acts committed by a parent."
If a school determines a parent poses a serious threat, officials said they would err on the side of caution and not allow that parent on campus. Each case is decided separately.
It is unclear how many registered sex offenders are parents. Neither the state nor school districts track them.
As a general rule, most local districts ask parents who are sex offenders to arrange ahead of time to see their child at school.
When they arrive on campus, they must go through the front office and show a photo identification. Most schools in west central Florida use software that scans drivers' licenses and instantly checks if a visitor is a registered sex offender. Schools without the software are supposed to manually check the state's sex offender registry.
A school administrator typically escorts the parent on campus and remains with them. "Essentially we limit access," Hegarty said. "Everyone knows what's going on."
State Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, said he doesn't think a blanket ban on parents who are sex offenders is practical or fair.
He draws a distinction between people who molest children and what he calls "Romeo and Juliet" cases - when a young man gets sexually involved with an even younger girl.
"Schools have to use common sense," he said.
State Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, who has made a name crusading against sex offenders, agrees banning such parents from schools might be going too far.
"As long as schools have a rule in place and as long as they supervise these parents, there is no reason to have a state law," said Argenziano, who successfully lobbied in 2005 for passage of the Jessica Lunsford Act, which mandates tougher penalties against sex offenders.
Miller, the PTA mom from Citrus, said she still hopes for a state law banning parents who are registered sex offenders from schools.
In the meantime, she raised the issue at a recent parent forum. School officials promised to remain vigilant.
And so is Miller.
After recognizing the two sex offenders at her children's school, she now regularly checks the list of sex offenders on the Sheriff's Office Web site and urges other parents to do the same.
"We're not blackballing people or putting up picket signs," she said. "But it's our right to protect our kids."
Times researcher Catherine Wos contributed to this report. Eddy Ramirez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352)860-7305.
Things to know
A sexual predator is someone who has been convicted of either one first-degree felony sex crime, or two second-degree felony sex crimes. The two second-degree felony sex crimes must have occurred within 10 years of each other or of the conviction, or release from the sanction of the court, whichever is later. The court must also declare someone to be a predator.
A sex offender is someone who has committed any sex offense listed in the statute. See F.S. 943.0435(12) for additional information regarding sexual offenders.
A list of sexual predators and offenders is available from the Sex Offender & Predator Unit at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which can mail a ZIP code list of names and addresses of the offenders and predators in your ZIP code free of charge. The information is also on the FDLE Web site at www.fdle.state.fl.us.
Under Florida law, local law enforcement is required to notify the community of the presence of a sexual predator and is authorized, but not mandated, to notify the community of the presence of a sexual offender. It is up to the agency to determine who is included in the "community" and how they will be notified.
Anne Lindberg, Times staff writer