Ethical Educator

Outing a Parent Offender
School Administrator, May 2018

Scenario: An elementary school principal learns, through the local police website, that the father of a girl at his school has confessed to paying for sex with a teenage prostitute after an undercover sting. The man’s name does not appear on the county’s database of sex offenders because the father is considered at low risk to re-offend. In a meeting with the man and his wife, the principal insists he may not volunteer at the school or be on campus during school hours. The principal does not share any information with the school’s parents. Should the parents be told about him?

Meira Levinson: 
No, it is not the principal’s job to promote vigilante justice against parents of students at his school. Especially since the man is deemed at low risk to re-offend, there is no plausible reason for the principal to advertise the man’s conviction.

Even if the man’s name did appear on the county’s sex offender database, I would still not advise the principal to notify other parents. There is little evidence that the database either has any predictive accuracy or protects children even when parents are informed. At the same time, there is significant evidence that these registries (which exist in no other country) destroy the lives of those on it and often the lives of their family members, as well.  If parents want to examine the registry, they can, but the principal should not publicize it.

More generally, principals should serve each student and family individually, rather than warning some members of the community against the depredations of others. In virtually every school, there are parents who are suffering drug addiction and alcoholism, parents who are mean to their own children or demeaning to others, overly competitive parents, parents who are jerks—sadly, it takes all kinds. Principals would not dream (I hope) of notifying parents about the imagined or even real threats posed by other parents who are drug addicted or simply nasty. Nor should they inform on this parent.
Maggie Lopez:
By informing the parent that he cannot volunteer at the school or be on campus, the principal has taken the necessary steps to protect the students in his charge. If the police did not find the parent to be enough of a threat to be placed on the sex offender list, then it is not the principal’s place to further publicize the father’s offense to the parent community. 

It is important to note however that the father’s offense does constitute a public record, which is accessible to anyone in the community. The principal may want to consider communication with staff members who have a need to know about this parent not being allowed to volunteer or be present on the campus. This would allow others in the school to be watchful as well. 
Sarah Jerome:
The principal should consult with the police to understand why they view this parent as “low risk to re-offend.” The research indicates sex offenders are often repeat offenders. If satisfied with the police analysis, it is sufficient that the parent be banned from volunteering or on campus during school hours.

The principal does not need to inform all parents about his decision to ban the father for volunteering. Consulting with the school attorney is advised.

This may be a good time to review board policies to be sure appropriate policies are in place regarding requirements for background checks for all those who work with children. Volunteers need background checks too. In addition, training procedures for volunteers are important in order to ensure safety protocols are followed. It also may be important to review with staff the need for their heightened vigilance when volunteers are present with children.
School officials have an “in loco parentis” responsibility to protect all those in our charge. This responsibility may put the principal in the crosshairs of the parents’ right to privacy and the students right to be protected. This decision may require considerable deliberation with advice from the school attorney as well as facts gathered from the police. 

Shelley Berman:

The precautionary action of barring this father from the school campus and school activities is appropriate and sufficient. For meetings essential to the daughter’s education, the principal could hold them online or after school if he is accompanied by another adult. To ensure the precautions are comprehensive and taken seriously, the principal could issue a no-trespass notice through the police department outlining the terms of access to the school.

The local police department already has made the arrest information available to the public and, in many communities, that information will circulate among parents. The court, after fully vetting the crime and the individual, has not required him to register as a sex offender and has determined that he is at low risk to re-offend. If the court, which has the authority to make such a determination, has not required that he report as a sex offender, then it would be problematic for the school to overreach in its notification. On the one hand, such action could open the school up to civil liability. On the other hand, it could set a precedent under which parents would expect the school to disseminate controversial information that came to its attention in the future. Exercising discretion in this current situation will better serve the family, the child, the school and the community.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; and Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.