Knowing all your students

March 30, 2005

Good schools know their students.

They know about special academic challenges, physical disabilities and medical conditions. They know if a student is a ward of the state. Whether restraining orders exist against family members. What school a child has transferred from. Which kids get picked on. Which ones are shy and which ones are bullies. The best schools know which students are having a rough time at home.

All that information is useful--even necessary--to ensure all students are protected, nurtured and receive the best possible education.

So it makes sense that when a student is found guilty of a serious sexual offense, school officials hear about it so that they can act accordingly. It may mean they do nothing at all. It may mean they keep a closer eye on that student.

But that hasn't been happening in Illinois.

According to an investigation by Tribune reporter Ofelia Casillas, many principals never learn that they have in their schools kids who were found to have committed sex offenses. State law requires all Illinois county sheriffs--or, in the sole case of Chicago, the city's Police Department--to inform school officials, but that doesn't always happen.

Sometimes that's because of confusion about what the law says, and sometimes it's because law enforcement officers feel they need to protect the privacy of the juvenile offender.

Juveniles should, in fact, be treated differently from adults. That's why we have an entirely separate justice system for minors.

The thinking, backed by brain research, is that juveniles aren't yet fully developed behaviorally and emotionally. They lack impulse control and judgment. Those qualities, and youthfulness itself, make children or adolescents more open to rehabilitation. That's why information about juvenile offenders, unless they are charged as adults for particularly violent crimes, almost always is kept private.

The potential for rehabilitation also holds true for juvenile offenders who have committed sexual offenses. If they receive treatment and support, they are less likely than adult sex offenders to commit future sex crimes.

This is hardly a widespread problem. There were only 274 such offenders in the six-county Chicago area, as of January, according to the Illinois State Police's juvenile sex offender registry. Some of those have since become adults and are out of school but remain--problematically--on the list, and some are in juvenile prisons. Only 1,100 are on the list statewide.

Information that someone in school is a sex offender, however, can be radioactive if educators don't handle it sensitively and quietly.

Law enforcement can help by explaining to school principals exactly what kind of crime was committed and how much of a risk the student might pose to classmates.

But so long as educators are being held responsible for the safety of all children in their schools for at least six hours a day, then they should know. It doesn't help the recovery of the juvenile sex offender if no one is monitoring his behavior.

If the law isn't clear enough, then legislators need to shed more light. Otherwise, law enforcement is obligated to routinely--and discreetly--share such information with schools.