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Schools increase awareness of sex offenders on campus

by Brandon Smith | March 19, 2023 at 4:05 a.m.
A photo illustration shows copies of "Meghan's Law" guidelines from the Arkansas Department of Education and the Arkansas School Boards Association. - Illustration by The Sentinel-Record

While all seven public school districts in Garland County have policies that allow for Level 1 and Level 2 sex offenders to be on campus in certain situations, schools say they do not go unmonitored if possible.

Lakeside School District Superintendent Shawn Cook said Lakeside, like the other six districts, is a member of the Arkansas School Boards Association and uses its model policy 6.10 regarding sex offenders on campus.

"What we do, in the event that we have (a sex offender) on our campus, like in all of our schools, we have the hall pass system where you have to check in with your ID," he said. "When you check in, it does an immediate background check and we're notified if there's a convicted sex offender. And we always have an administrator and an officer to go be in that area, you know, to monitor when somebody's on campus."

Cook said the automatic background check includes Level 1 and Level 2 sex offenders, as well as the more serious Level 3 and Level 4s. He noted, however, that it is not always possible to know, like in such cases involving sporting and other events on campus.

"There can be some situations like in a ballgame that you wouldn't know about that. You know, they wouldn't tell you, or you weren't notified or whatever. But when we do know, that's what we do," he said.

ASBA's Model Policy 6.10, based on the Arkansas Department of Education Division of Elementary and Secondary Education Guidelines for "Megan's Law," says "a parent or guardian who is a Level 1 or Level 2 sex offender shall be allowed to enter the school campus to attend parent-teacher conferences or any other activity that is appropriate for a parent, guardian, or community member."

Patrons within the Hot Springs School District recently objected to Superintendent Stephanie Nehus's husband, Zachary Nehus, a convicted Level 2 sex offender, being on campus.

Lucas Harder, policy service director for the ASBA, said Wednesday its model policies are designed to give districts a safe legal start for adopting a local policy.

"As part of that, we update all of our model policies based on changes in legislation, rules, and court decisions so that districts should always be starting from a safe legal position," he said in an email to The Sentinel-Record. "We always recommend that districts have their local attorney review all policies the district plans to adopt to make sure that the final language the district plans to use is language their attorney feels comfortable defending."

He said its policy was last updated in February 2021 to account for a technical change. Each of the local districts, according to the policies listed on their websites, use the same wording as that of the ASBA model policy.

In a statement released following Tuesday night's regular monthly school board meeting, the Hot Springs School District said, "Out of respect for the HSSD family, and hearing your concerns, the Nehus family has agreed that Mr. Nehus will not be present on school district grounds for the remainder of this semester, unless there is an emergency."

Lake Hamilton School Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham said Thursday the district "takes proactive steps to work with area law enforcement agencies to ensure that all individuals who have been convicted of a crime, including sex offenders, are abiding by the law and not posing a risk to students on campus."

"We have systems in place in all of our schools that run background checks on all campus visitors as they check in to school offices by showing a valid ID," he said.

"Collaborating with law enforcement agencies has proven to be an effective way for the Lake Hamilton School District to monitor the activities of convicted individuals, including those who have been convicted of sex offenses, and take appropriate action, if necessary.

"As always, the safety and security of our Lake Hamilton students and staff is our top priority," he said.

The Arkansas Sex Offender Registration Act, also known as Megan's Law, allows law enforcement to notify the public when a sexual offender is in their area. Offenders are assessed to determine who needs to be notified.

The law says Level 1 offenders are usually those with "no prior history of sexual acting out and no strong anti-social tendencies or sexual compulsions or other psychological factors impairing judgment."

Level 2 are usually those with "limited or circumscribed prior history of sexual acting out and/or only mild anti-social or predatory tendencies that increase the general level of risk they pose."

Level 3 are those with "histories of repeat sexual offending and/or strong anti-social, violent or predatory personality characteristics. Sexual compulsions are likely to be present, but may be kept under control when relapse prevention plans are followed and treatment is continued."

Level 4 are those with "impaired judgment or control who have sexual or violent compulsions that they lack the ability to control. This may be due to pedophilia or other disorder of sexual attraction, mental illness or personality disorder that distorts thinking or otherwise interferes with behavioral control. In order to determine an offender's risk of 're-offense,' the law enforcement guidelines include a risk assessment scale that reviews the seriousness of the offender's crime, his offense history, and other personal and social characteristics of the offender."

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