College Campuses Open To Sex Offenders
KYTX CBS 19 VIDEO
By KENNETH DEAN and MICHELE REESE
Tyler Paper and KYTX CBS19 Investigators
Until he decided to run for student government at The University of Texas at Tyler, Jamie Newburn was just another student on campus.
However, during the election process, the university newspaper discovered his sex-offender status and made it a front-page story.
The discovery shocked students and campus police, whom Newburn neglected to inform of his status.
"When I first ran for student government, it got put in the campus newspaper, and there were a lot of students upset I was able to be on campus," Newburn said.
Newburn said campus police contacted him after the story ran.
The Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act of 2000 and other federal and state laws mandate that colleges and universities provide students with information about registered sex offenders.
However, that information is not always easy to find, and many students in East Texas were not aware they shared classrooms with sex offenders.
"I never knew there were any in Kilgore," Kilgore College student Mashayla Merchant said. "It's concerning and something you don't think about when you come to college."
In cases such as Newburn's, the entity might not know an offender is a student on the campus, and some college officials believe the law needs to have safeguards to make sure offenders are identified to campus security.
The Texas Department of Public Safety's sex offender database indicated that as of April 29, Newburn was one of 546 sex offenders on Texas college and university campuses, including East Texas institutions.
Tyler Junior College, Kilgore College and UT Tyler officials confirmed that they have sex offenders registered as students, and records indicate some of the offenders attending classes are deemed high-risk, the highest of three statuses assigned to offenders through a battery of psychological evaluations.
The DPS website indicated TJC had eight offenders at the start of the year, but school officials said only four offenders are on campus at this date. Kilgore College has seven sex offenders, and UT Tyler has two students registered as offenders on campus.
While the offenders are supposed to register with campus police, TJC, Kilgore College and UT Tyler officials said they do not track students who are sex offenders once they check in.
"We do not routinely monitor their activities on campus," Ronnie Melton, TJC campus safety director. "If we become aware of a situation by a news media account or through another law enforcement agency then we would do some follow up."
When asked if students were made aware of sex offenders, Melton replied, "The student body is not notified individually of those who are actually on campus."
He said the decision to alert students would be need-to-know based on an offender's status.
Melton added there are students on campus who have been convicted of robberies, burglaries, assaults and other crimes.
But sex offenders under state and federal laws are required to register with local police as to where they live, what they drive and where they are employed. They also must report on a regular basis. Failure to register or comply with registration can result in another arrest and confinement.
Information about sex offenders on the TJC, UT Tyler and Kilgore campuses is found in student publications, which can be accessed online.
At TJC, the link to the DPS website is found on page 7 of the student handbook, while at Kilgore College a link to the DPS website is found on page 12 of the college's annual security and fire safety report. At UT Tyler, the DPS website link is found on page 30 of the annual security report, but the link did not work as of last week.
At Le Tourneau University, a link is found several pages into the school's police department website.
According to the DPS website, Jacksonville College, Lon Morris College and Texas College did not have any sex offenders listed as students.
No East Texas schools state on their websites that they have sex offenders on the campuses, but at Texas A&M, the University of Texas at Austin and other schools statewide, the information is available to students on police department's main website in bold lettering in the middle of the page.
The information is readily available and constantly updated.
A&M Police Chief Elmer Schneider said sex offenders are made easy to find on his department's site because he believes students need to be informed.
The offenders are listed by name with a link to their page on the DPS sex offender registry, which gives information such as the crime for which they were convicted, their physical appearance with photos and descriptors and their risk level.
"We have it set up that if they are going to attend classes here or work here, they will register with us," Schneider said. "We even put construction workers working on our campus who are registered offenders on our list. We check to make sure they are still actively enrolled or working here and change the list accordingly."
Melton said his school does not do background checks on construction workers, and though there are multiple projects ongoing at the campus, he did not know if there were any sex offenders working for contractors.
"If we found out or it was brought to our attention that a sex offender was working on our campus as a construction worker with one of the contractors, it would be their last day," he said. "We couldn't make the company fire them, but they would be criminally trespassed off our campus meaning they would be arrested if they came back."
TJC and Kilgore College officials said campus safety is their top concern and have taken steps to ensure that, but they reiterated that their campuses are open to all students -- even felons.
However, Kilgore College administrators and police acknowledged that more can be done to protect the campus by imposing further requirements on sex offenders, including construction workers they do not check.
Kilgore College Police Chief Martin Pessink said sex offenders only check in with his department upon enrollment and are not required to do so again, even if they remain on campus for years.
Pessink and Michael Jenkins, vice president of student development, said they believe policy should be changed at the college to require offenders to check in periodically.
"If they are coming up for a follow-up semester, it would be nice to have a regulation that they have to come in and check in again," Pessink said. He added, "No. I do not track students no matter what their status may be."
Pessink said that if he learned that a construction worker was on a campus project he would want that person to register with his office, but he does not know if there are any such offenders.
"If I found out I would ask the offender to come in and register, but I really don't have any idea who these workers are or their histories," he said.
Jenkins said, "More information is always better, so if we know who's on campus then we are in a much better position to respond to concerns, so that's a good idea."
At TJC and Kilgore College, cameras have been placed around the campus to deter crime and help police identify criminal suspects. TJC also uses a badge system to identify those who should be on campus. When spotted, those not wearing a badge are questioned to determine whether they are visitors or trespassers.
Jenkins and TJC Vice President of Student Affairs Johnny Moore both stress that community colleges such as Kilgore and TJC are the place for second chances.
"The top priority of this institution is to provide a safe campus. People make mistakes and we are, like Chief Melton said, the lifeboat for many in the community," Moore said.
Kilgore and TJC both said they require background checks for students wishing to live in campus dorms. Those with felony records or repetitive crimes such as assaults would be ineligible. UT Tyler does not perform background checks on students, said Beverly Golden, the university's spokeswoman.
"I feel like this campus is really safe," TJC student Andrea Mesenda said. "It doesn't scare me to walk to my car by myself at night."
Ms. Mesenda went on to add that she was under the impression sex offenders were in every town and probably on campuses nationwide.
"Does it scare me yes ... but it's life," she said.
Madie Jamison, a Tyler Junior College freshman, said, "I think it would be nice to know who they are. I don't even know how I would find out if there were any on campus."
When asked if changes needed to be made to the laws on sex offenders attending college or with current campus policy, UT Tyler responded via email that the university adheres to the current law.
"The existing law puts the responsibility for self-reporting to the university on the individual, and we abide by that law," News and Information Director Beverley Golden replied.
But Newburn, a psychology major with hopes o
f becoming a counselor, said he did not know he had to register with campus police.
"I didn't know about the requirement of having to register on campus, so when I was running for (student government), that's when the campus police were alerted and they searched me out."
Newburn's conviction came in 2001 when the then 24-year-old used a computer at the Jacksonville Public Library to interact with a 14-year-old girl. Newburn's trial showed evidence that he sent harmful matter to a juvenile and then took a bus to Los Angeles to meet the girl with intention of sexual relations.
He was arrested before the meeting could take place and was charged with federal sex crimes and sentenced to prison.
Because of the federal statutes at the time of his offense, Newburn is scheduled to be released of his required sexual offender registration in 2013, but police said Newburn is not the norm, and about 95 percent of offenders are required to register as a sex offender for life. A&M Chief Schneider said that though the information is made available to educate students, the issue is for the community as a whole to practice awareness.
"In our highly mobile society being registered in one area does not prevent sex offenders from committing offenses in another area, but it does make them known in the area where they live, work or go to school," he said.
"We need to practice awareness by knowing who and what is going on around us."
East Texas Crisis Center sexual assault program coordinator Brooke Wyatt said the crisis center tries to educate students at college campuses.
"We talk to the students about safety and precautions," Ms. Wyatt said. "We have gotten away from risk reduction to where we now focus mainly on prevention.
"We talk about sex offenders and how after they serve their time, they are not required to do anything special other than report to their local police department."
Ms. Wyatt said she was concerned that UT Tyler was not performing background checks on students living in college dorms, such as both Kilgore and TJC have begun doing.
"Yes I am very shocked that they do not require background checks," she said. "I will talk to some people here in the office about this."
Ms. Wyatt said UT Tyler has been receptive and helped educate students about sex crimes, and she hoped the university would change the policy and conduct checks on students.
She said only 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, and between April 2010 and April 2011, she worked 235 sexual assault cases in Smith County and went to hospitals to conduct interviews with victims in Smith County 136 times in the same period.
Ms. Wyatt said colleges and universities should do more to educate students and faculty.
"I think knowledge is always power. The more you know the better prepared you can be," she said.
Newburn said he just wants get his life in order and echoed college administrators' sentiments of deserving a second chance.
"I don't socialize too much outside of school. I have only a few friends. Right now I still have no future. I just take each day as I can,"