Sex offenders on college campus in Washington state generate controversy

Do we really know the people sitting beside us? (Photo by VelkrO, Creative Commons.)

Two level III sex offenders are currently taking classes at Clark College in Washington state — and the situation has received a mixed reception from students as they question the safety of their campus.

At the beginning of spring quarter, students and faculty received an email explaining that two sex offenders would be taking classes on campus. A link included in the email gave details about the sex offenders, including their photos and descriptions of their crimes. And while there have been no reports of any harm committed by the offenders on campus, students are uneasy.

“Sex offenders could be a danger to fellow students and staff,” said Michelle Wardrop, a student at Clark College. Wardrop said that she felt safe herself, but was worried about the safety of others.

According to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office website, level III sex offenders are considered to be “sex/kidnap offenders who, based on currently known information, are rated most dangerous to the public and who are a high risk to re-offend within the community at large.” In contrast, Level I and II sex offenders are at a lower risk of re-offending.

Washington state law requires sex offenders who enroll in an institution of higher education to “notify the local county sheriff immediately.” Nicole Barone, the director of Security and Safety at Clark College, said that Clark College gets information about the offenders from the sheriff’s office.

“If they are a level III, then we put information out by email,” Barone said. The process of notifying the campus community, she said, takes only a day or two.

Barone said Clark College cannot refuse any student as part of its open access policy. She also said that the only way for the sex offenders to be rejected or suspended is if they violate student conduct rules.

“It’s how we handle risk with any student,” Barone said.

Many colleges across the country have allowed sex offenders to attend classes on their campuses. Some, however, are conflicted about the decision. Lake Michigan Community College, for example, has decided to ban anyone that was a sex offender of children from taking classes on campus.

Barone believes that it is not her place to judge. She meets with the sex offenders at the start of the quarter and makes them aware of their opportunities for success, as well as what it takes to be a student at Clark.

“Generally speaking, these are people who have served their time and paid their debt to society,” Barone said, adding that one of the two sex offenders is a returning Clark student.

For other students, however, the situation is not as clear cut.

When asked whether Clark College should have a say in enrolling sex offenders, Wardrop said she believes that should be an option. At the same time, she said, if a college decided to go ahead and accept sex offenders, it shouldn’t have to notify students about level I and II sex offenders — only level III offenders should trigger the notification.

Angel Huynh at Clark College in Scarpelli Hall. Taken By: Leah Sathrum.

Angel Huynh, a 38 year old student at Clark, also believes that sex offenders should not be on campus grounds.

“There are women and children here,” Huynh said.

Huynh said that instead of having sex offenders attend classes on campus, they should be completing their education in a more secure environment, such as a prison. Huynh also believes that Clark needs to notify everyone of all levels of sex offenders.

“It will be safer for the people on campus,” Huynh said.

Other students expressed mixed opinions. Matthew Carey, a 17 year old student, said he doesn’t support the open campus policy for accepting sex offenders — but he also doesn’t believe sex offenders, especially nonviolent ones with the level I or II label, should be shunned.

“You don’t want sex offenders on campus,” Carey said. “But not because it will start a witch hunt.”

Some experts believe sex offender laws are too restrictive. Others, such as Phil Locke, a science and technology advisor for the Ohio Innocence Project, point out that the National Registry of Exonerations reported 305 sex offender convictions between 1989 and 2012 were incorrect. The report does not say how many people in total were convicted for sex assault and abuse during those 23 years.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created a map of America with the number of sex offenders for every state. In total, there were approximately 861,837 in the U.S. in 2016. Sex offender registries have existed since the early 1990’s.

Laurie Schacht, the director of the YWCA’s Sexual Assault Program in Clark County, said it can be scary for students — especially those who are victims of abuse or assault — to realize that sex offenders are on campus grounds.

“It can exasperate someone’s trauma,” Schacht said.

Schacht said the YWCA offers community based advocacy and programs solely there for the survivors. She encouraged those who may be distressed about the situation at Clark College or has experienced sexual assault to call the YWCA’s hotline number. The hotline number is 360–695–0501.

“We need to talk about this instead of shutting it down,” Schacht said.

Clark College also maintains a website with campus and community resources for victims of sexual misconduct. It includes Clark policies, options for reporting sexual misconduct, and suggestions on how to help a friend who has experienced sexual violence.