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Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2008

Colleges work to exclude sex offenders

Student safety in off-campus housing a concern

August 16, 2008

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— Lawmakers and college administrators are trying to shut paroled sex offenders out of one of the few places they can still live: Student neighborhoods near major U.S. universities.

More than 23 states ban registered sex offenders from living close to schools or other places frequented by children. But nowhere is that protection extended to the areas surrounding college campuses.

"A convicted sexual felon should not be able to live next door to your college student," said Jamie Ison, an Alabama state representative who sponsored a bill that would include universities under the legal definition of a school.

Online databases of sex offender addresses show that the issue affects universities across the country - wherever there are student neighborhoods with plentiful apartments and cheap rent.

In Los Angeles, 60 offenders live within a mile of the University of Southern California. Nine live within a mile of Duke University in Durham, N.C. In Chicago, six can be found within a mile of Northwestern University. Within a two-mile radius of Jacksonville University in Florida are 93 paroled sex offenders.

Ison and others are especially mindful of the risks facing young college women: "They're living away from home for the first time. They're staying out late. I know they're drinking. We need to ensure their safety."

Some schools such as the University of Washington have sought to push sex offenders out of campus neighborhoods without the aid of legislation.

Gov. Chris Gregoire raised concerns earlier this year with a landlord whose tenants included sex offenders.

The landlord ousted 13 of the 25 parolees living near the Seattle campus, which was one of the first in the nation to begin establishing a buffer zone that would be off-limits to sex offenders.

The Alabama bill died on the last day of the legislative session after critics raised doubts about whether there had been any reports of sex crimes instigated by a registered sex offender living near a campus.

But some students insist it's the state's responsibility to protect them.

"We deserve to feel safe on our campuses," says R.B. Walker, a University of Alabama senior who spent the past year lobbying for the bill. "For people to say this isn't a priority because it's based on the possibility of harm is just wrong."

Like many states, Alabama restricts sex offenders from living or working within 2,000 feet of any school or child-care facility.

Convicted sex offender Chris Swires lived near the University of Oregon for close to four years while completing his degree.

A landlord eventually evicted him because of complaints from neighbors who learned through an online sex-offender registry that he had been convicted of molesting children in 1998.

Swires, 33, later purchased a home in another area. But he is concerned that new laws would only make it harder to find housing.

"It's a stereotype based on bad myths," he said. "I think it's just a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist. It's going to make things 10 times worse."

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