This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
School is supposed to be a safe harbor for students, not a place where sex predators can connect with them while posing as normal students. But that’s a real risk in Washington schools, as an outrageous Clark County case shows.
Jeremiah Thompson – a 19-year-old senior at Prairie High in Vancouver – was charged last week with raping a 14-year-old off campus on April 12. The girl reportedly had agreed to hook up with him at a nearby grocery store; whatever her intentions, she was well below the age of consent, and she sought medical care and a rape kit afterwards.
Let’s take a wild guess: She might have been less dazzled by Thompson if she’d known he was a registered sex offender, not just a senior interested in a freshman.
Another wild guess: Her parents might have warned her to watch out for him if they’d known he had a scary criminal record.
And scary it was. He’d been running into trouble with the law since he was 13. Three years ago, he was charged with molesting a 7-year-old girl and plea-bargained a lesser offense.
A month later, he sexually assaulted his mother, then assaulted his brother after he pulled Thompson off her.
Sweet guy. He was convicted (as a juvenile) of both crimes; after that, he repeatedly violated probation, failed drug tests and did stints in juvenile detention, according to the Vancouver Columbian.
Somehow, Thompson wound up being classified as a “Level 2” sex offender, a medium-risk category. Teenagers have a right to a public education regardless of their criminal histories. He wound up back in a regular school with access to every girl at Prairie High. No one warned his fellow students or their parents.
In fact, state law explicitly forbids school administrators from issuing such warnings – they can only tell teachers and other staff members to keep an eye on an offender.
Mostly that’s a good thing. The spectrum of juvenile sex offenses ranges from an inappropriate touch by a 13-year-old to a forcible rape by a 17-year-old. Kids with a minor offense in their background and a low risk of re-offending should not be crucified as predators. In any case, school officials aren’t trained to decide who’s dangerous and who isn’t, and they shouldn’t be expected to.
But laws protecting student information stop making sense when someone like Thompson is roaming the halls of the local high school.
In theory, the police can warn parents, or parents can check sheriffs’ websites for sex offenders attending their children’s schools. But that’s not practical. School enrollment records are private. The sheriff’s website doesn’t say if an offender is in school or not, and parents have no roll of students to check against the website.
Lawmakers should get to work on this dilemma. There has to be some way to flag the likes of Thompson without stigmatizing minor offenders who’ve put their mistakes behind them. Parents deserve to know if the upperclassman sweet-talking their daughter is actually a predator flying below the radar.