Rock Hill schools consider tightening security amid analysis of nearby sex offenders

scetrone@heraldonline.comJanuary 19, 2013 

The Rock Hill school district might begin cracking down on campuses that don’t follow rules requiring schools to electronically screen visitors and to keep all doors but the entrances locked.

After a safety audit found a significant number of schools were lax in those areas, the district’s risk manager, Laney Burris, said she plans to conduct more frequent security reviews and might fine schools that fail to follow the rules.

“We’re going to have to tighten up,” Burris said.

Analysts from Safe Havens International, a school safety consulting firm, pointed to safety lapses in a report urging district officials to beef up crisis management plans and enact tighter security measures.

An unsecured door is a “common gap in security (that) could make it easy for a non-student, or a student, to bypass the visitor management screening system at each school,” the report says. “Keep in mind that an aggressor needs only a single open door to gain access to and victimize students and/or staff. Such incidents have already taken place in schools around the nation with horrific consequences.”

Schools should be vigilant about screening visitors and locking doors, the report said, because Rock Hill schools on average have a “rather high” number of convicted sex offenders living nearby. Some campuses are within “an extremely high density” of offenders, the report said.

While school and police officials cautioned that isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm, they said it’s important to be aware and prepared. In South Carolina, as long as people convicted of sex crimes with a minor live more than a thousand feet from a school, they are following the law.

On average, Rock Hill schools have 12 convicted sex offenders living, working or attending school within a mile of the district’s campuses, according to the report. The average tops 13 when the district’s Central Child Development Center and Flexible Learning Center are included, a Herald analysis of public sex offender registry data found.

Rock Hill’s average was more than three times most neighboring districts’, according to The Herald’s analysis.

Some schools had few sex offenders registered within a mile. Mount Holly Elementary had zero. Lesslie Elementary and Dutchman Creek Middle each had one. But Ebenezer Avenue Elementary had 43 within a mile radius, the most in the district. The Children’s School at Sylvia Circle had 33.

Safe Havens considers averages above 10 to be high, said Michael Dorn, Safe Havens’ executive director.

Superintendent Lynn Moody hired Dorn’s firm to review the district’s 27 schools and eight support facilities. While the district is better prepared for crises than most, analysts said, a host of issues should be addressed.

Moody is asking the school board to approve spending $2.35 million to comply with the firm’s recommendations, which include beefing up crisis plans and improving crisis response training for employees, among other fixes.

Cautious and aware

There is much debate over the threat posed by convicted sex offenders. While conventional wisdom holds that sex offenders are likely to strike again, research suggests recidivism rates could be lower.

A widely-cited Department of Justice study collected data on the rearrest, reconviction, and reimprisonment of 9,691 male sex offenders, including 4,295 child molesters, who were tracked for 3 years after their release from prisons in 15 states in 1994.

The researchers found that within 3 years of their release, 5.3 percent of sex offenders were rearrested for another sex crime. But compared to non-sex offenders released from state prisons, sex offenders were four times more likely to be rearrested for a sex crime.

Carolyn Atwell-Davis, vice president for policy and government affairs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, points out that recidivism rate studies only count criminals who have been caught. And they don’t factor unreported sex offenses.

Moreover, she said, there aren’t reliable ways to determine who will re-offend.

“How low is an acceptable recidivism rate when it comes to children?” Atwell-Davis said. “If it’s not zero, then it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”

Federal law requires states to track sex offenders and keep public, searchable registries of their whereabouts. Many states bar sex offenders from living near schools and daycare facilities.

When it comes to school safety, officials said it’s best to be aware and cautious.

“You’re going to be hard pressed to find any community without sex offenders,” Atwell-Davis said.

Dorn said his firm points sex offender information out to schools as a reminder to follow procedures already in place and tighten gaps.

Rock Hill school leaders said they were aware of the sex offender figures before Safe Havens’ report.

At the start of each school year, Burris said, she sends principals the latest data on registered sex offenders who live, work or attend school near their campuses.

Tammy White, principal at Sunset Park Center for Accelerated Studies, said she checks the list to see if any of the listed offenders are related to students or have connections to the school.

“The reality is, most of those folks we’ll never see,” White said.

Each campus has a screening system that requires a visitor to scan his driver’s license or other identification at a computer for a background check that detects whether the visitor is a sex offender, Burris said.

Analysts called that system “excellent,” but found that “many of the assessed schools are using the system in a manner that would make it easy for a dangerous person to bypass the system.”

There were instances when the program misread a driver’s license, but the staff member did not catch the error, according to the report.

“Of much greater concern to our analysts was the fact that many of the schools allow visitors to sign themselves in making the system nearly useless,” the report said.

Schools have already improved procedures, Burris said, but there still are gaps.

Burris said she’s considering approaching it like fire drills.

To prompt schools to follow fire drill rules, building administrators face fines for failing to conduct and properly document fire drills. Analysts praised that system.

“We were impressed with this approach and have never encountered a client with this measure in place before,” the Safe Havens report says.

Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072

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