Prairie student's arrest on rape charge raises questions, concerns

Sex offender laws are adequate, experts say

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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The recent alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by a schoolmate who is a registered sex offender has parents asking why they’re not told of such offenders’ presence on Clark County campuses.

In the aftermath of the offender’s arrest, politicians quickly promised to review existing law in the next legislative session.

But legal experts and police say that for all but a very few cases, the rules currently in place strike a good balance between protecting the community and preserving teenage offenders’ chances to be rehabilitated.

Jeremiah Thompson, 19, pleaded not guilty to a charge of rape of a child in the third degree in Clark County Superior Court on April 20. Thompson was a student at Prairie High School until his arrest.

When Thompson was released from juvenile detention in 2010 for a previous sex offense, he was classified as Level II, which means he was deemed a moderate risk to the community.

In advance of his return to Prairie High that fall, the sheriff’s office told the principal and district officials about Thompson’s sex-offender status. As mandated by law, the administrators passed on this information to all teachers and other staff who directly worked with Thompson -- but not to students or parents.

Thompson’s picture, home address, age and criminal record are displayed on a website that lists adult and juvenile sex offenders in Clark County. But that listing did not say which school he attended. And Level I offenders are not listed on the website at all.

The information available about juvenile offenders is limited because it is widely accepted that juvenile sex offenders need to be treated differently than adult offenders.

Risk factors

There are 48 registered sex offenders enrolled in Clark County schools, according to the county prosecutor’s office. All but the smallest rural districts have some on their student rolls, with up to 20 registered offenders going to classes in the biggest districts.

While those numbers may seem alarming to parents at first sight, it’s important to remember that minimal violations can land a young person on the offender list. And it’s important to note the offenders’ risk level.

The state’s definition for Level I sex offenders is that they present the lowest possible risk to the community, have not shown predatory behavior and are successfully completing treatment.

All but one of the 48 registered in the county’s schools are Level I offenders. The remaining is an 18-year-old Level IIoffender who was convicted of a sex crime at 15 and has not violated parole since or otherwise generated any court records.

Rehabilitation

Juvenile sex offenders have very good odds of being rehabilitated completely, because their brains are still developing, according to a report by the state’s Sex Offender Policy Board.

And juvenile sex offenders have low recidivism -- they’re unlikely to commit another sex crime. Several studies have found that juvenile sex offenders’ recividism rates are lower than those for other felony crimes. Adult sex offenders rarely are former juvenile offenders.

Because of the differences found between juveniles and adults, the policy board has recommended that the state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration develop a new system to assess juvenile sex offenders’ risk level, said Brad Meryhew, a Seattle attorney who sits on the board.

Prisons and juvenile detention facilities use a state-issued form to classify sex offenders when they are released. The form consists of 21 questions about the offender’s history, previous convictions, nature of the crime, relationship to the victim, substance abuse and other characteristics. Each answer creates a score, which is tallied up for a final result determining the risk level.

But law enforcement in the community where the offender moves to after detention can choose to change the risk level, if it has other information about the offender’s background, such as credible allegations that never made it to court, said Detective Kevin McVicker of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Right to education

Washington laws on juvenile sex offenders differ from other states in several significant ways, according to a 2009 report by the state policy board.

The state has some of the nation’s strictest laws on juvenile sex offenders. It was the first -- in 1990 -- to enact registration and notification laws for juveniles. It’s the only one that puts adult and juvenile offenders together on the same public registry.

And it’s one of the very few that requires juvenile registration for any sex-related offense, which includes a list of more than 30 different crimes, according to the policy board report. Federal laws such as Megan’s Law only require registration for juveniles if the incident involved force orwasn’t just considered a crime solely because of the age difference between victim and offender.

In school

There are hundreds of students who must register under these laws around the state. But they still also have a constitutional right to an education.

In fact, their being in school without every parent and student knowing their status may be one way to keep the community safe, as odd as that sounds.

There have been many instances of juvenile offenders being severely bullied in school after their status got out, said Lori Volkman, deputy prosecuting attorney in Clark County.

The community is better served by giving juvenile sex offenders -- particularly Level I offenders -- a chance at rehabilitation without notifying everyone around them, said Meryhew, the Seattle attorney.

Because of the public shunning, the young offender often drops out of school and ends up with no social network, no work and maybe even no place to live. Those kinds of unstable conditions greatly drive up recidivism rates, Meryhew said.

Reactions

After Thompson’s story ran in The Columbian, parents called the Battle Ground school district and the sheriff’s office.

Some even called legislators, who reacted with statements.

Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said he will ask the Sex Offender Policy Board to examine the Thompson case “for possible recommendations to the Legislature.”

Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, went one step further. She said she would reintroduce HB 1208 in the next session. That bill requires that parents be notified when a Level II or Level III offender enrolls in a school.

Such a change in the law might trigger legal challenges to see if Washington’s registration requirements for juveniles are even constitutional, said Meryhew, the Seattle attorney.

“Around the nation, it’s considered a bad idea to notify every parent,” he said. “That’s not the solution to these problems.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.