OpEd in last week's paper
Will state legislators render teachers 'improper' sex cops?
Updated Mar 19; Posted Mar 19
By Cameron Smith firstname.lastname@example.org
We want schools to be educational safe havens for our children. At the same time, public policies designed to make schools safer may carry unintended consequences. Legislation making teachers liable for policing "improper sexual conduct" is winding its way through the Alabama Legislature, and it shouldn't become law without serious vetting by legislators.
Senator Clyde Chambliss (R-Autauga County) introduced SB26 responding to a constituent family's preference that juvenile sexual offenders (JSOs) not be "mainstreamed" in Alabama's public schools. At the beginning of this school year, the family's son spotted the JSO who had abused his sister attending Autauga County high school.
Cambliss's legislation kicks moderate and high-risk juvenile sex offenders out of public schools entirely. Those students would move to alternative education programs, homeschooling or virtual schools. Such changes create budgetary and logistical challenges in their own right, but also make redirecting those JSOs away from poor behavioral choices that much harder.
The bigger problem with SB26 is what happens with "low-risk" juveniles who remain in public school classrooms.
The recidivism rate of youth adjudicated for sexual offenses is already extremely low. Research by Dr. Michael Caldwell at the University of Wisconsin suggests, "[T]he most current sexual recidivism rate is likely to be below 3%." When we're talking about the "low-risk" contingency of this entire population, it's an even smaller number.
SB26 shares information about low-risk JSOs with local law enforcement, the local superintendent of education, local board of education, principal of the school, and supervisory staff and teachers.
Improperly disclosing such information is a Class C felony--significant criminal liability.
The legislation also requires classroom teachers to report violations of a JSO's agreed-upon "individualized student safety plan" to their principals. The plans are essentially predetermined monitoring protocols for these low-risk juvenile offenders. Monitoring sounds simple enough except that the behavior scrutinized is so vague as to include "behavior that may be indicative of improper sexual activity." That standard is far broader than the criminal legal standard we expect classroom educators to understand and report.
Consider just one example. Should a low-risk offender be reported for asking a peer for his or her phone number? Under normal circumstances, it's innocuous. Is it an indicator of problematic conduct for an adjudicated juvenile? Even if it's not an actual indicator, might it be?
Teachers shouldn't be forced to agonize over that sort of decision.
They're trying to instruct a classroom full of children--a tall order without any new legislative burdens. Now they're liable for a felony if they disclose the JSO's status and expected to monitor low-risk JSOs with excruciating attention to detail according to standards that don't currently exist. They're teachers, not classroom sex cops or juvenile probation officers.
JSO's ought to face the consequences of their actions, and we should make every effort to ensure that victims are made whole and protected. The goal of having a juvenile system in the first place is giving children the opportunity to get their lives on a better path that doesn't end up in a perpetual life of crime--with many future victims.
We're right to focus on school safety, but legislators should carefully consider SB26's unintended impacts on Alabama's classrooms before it becomes law.
Cameron Smith is a regular columnist for AL.com and vice president for the R Street Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.