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Northern Heights parent says sex offender at school is ‘a call to action’ for leaders

An email from Northern Heights Elementary principal Pam Pottle invited parents to a meeting Tuesday evening with Bellingham school district and law enforcement representatives to discuss concern over recent notification that a Level III convicted sex offender has been on campus.

The 45-minute meeting included presentations by each of the district and law enforcement representatives, parent Tony Hillaire told The Bellingham Herald, but only allowed approximately five minutes of questions from parents, which he said may have left parents who only showed up, listened and left a little disappointed and discouraged.

But the representatives stuck around for nearly 90 minutes after the meeting to answer one-on-one questions, and Hillaire said that, plus some follow up meetings he had at the district office on Wednesday, left him encouraged that a solution can be found.

“Based on meetings and conversations, I believe that they’re working on solutions — it is a priority for them to address it,” Hillaire said. “My perspective is that there is only so much that can be communicated at this point in time because they are following the laws and policies in place, and don’t want to over-promise. We will act in good faith, and will wait for solutions to be brought forward to the schools and community.”

Hillaire and other Northern Heights parents became aware of the situation after a sexual offender notification for Robert Leroy Smith was sent by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office earlier this month.

Word that a Level III sex offender — those “classified as having a high risk to sexually re-offend,” Sheriff Bill Elfo told The Herald — was on campus quickly spread on social media, and last week parents passed out fliers with Smith’s Sexual Offender Notification form. Many parents brought concerns and questions to the school and district.

Bellingham Public Schools spokesperson Dana Smith told The Herald that, by law, Robert Smith is able to check-in as a parent visitor and be on school grounds because he has a child attending the school, but the district has tried to work with parents to find solutions and answer questions.

“We just want it to be very clear to our community that we have visitor and volunteer protocols in place at all our schools, and there are requirements including background checks for anyone applying to volunteer in schools,” Dana Smith told The Herald. “Also, we are continuing to work with law enforcement and legal counsel to ensure that our policies and practices are in alignment with all applicable laws regarding guardian visitation and restrictions.”

She said the district follows laws and its own protocols for visitors and volunteers, adding that a convicted sex offender would not be allowed to volunteer in one of the district’s schools. Volunteers at schools must go through a criminal background check before they are allowed regularly-scheduled unsupervised access to elementary students.

All school parents have the legal right to access their child’s classroom and all school-sponsored activities for the purpose of observing, Dana Smith said, but no visitor is allowed to be alone with students or supervise them. She added that school staff supervise students from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on all the district’s elementary campuses.

The district hoped Tuesday’s meeting would help share the responsibilities and legal constraints the district is working under while also giving it a chance to answer questions and hear parents’ concerns, Dana Smith said.

“It is an evolving and complicated situation, made more complicated by our responsibility under federal privacy law, as well as misinformation spread through social media,” she told The Herald. “Our goal for the meeting was to have a respectful dialogue where we shared the role of law enforcement and the responsibilities of a public school.”

Hillaire said one of his biggest concerns was that parents were not informed of a Level III sex offender’s presence until October — more than a month after the school year started.

Dana Smith said the district wasn’t notified until mid-September during the standard notification process by the sheriff’s office, which is legally required to send out community notifications when a Level II or III offender moves into a neighborhood.

She also told The Herald it would not be possible for the school to notify parents when Robert Smith checks in as a visitor at Northern Heights.

Despite that, Hillaire said he is hopeful a workable solution can be found that meets both the laws the school district must follow and the desire of parents to ensure their child’s safety.

“Being a community of parents and neighbors that shares and communicates information effectively is extremely helpful, because as we’ve learned, we won’t always get notified of everything that the school or law enforcement knows, depending on the area that we live in,” Hillaire told The Herald. “I want to thank the concerned mothers that spread the word about this situation and wouldn’t take no for an answer, which has brought our community, school district and law enforcement together to find solutions and ensure a better and safer future for our children and families.”

Though he said he understands it may take time to reach those goals, he feels it is important that all parents receive the information they need to make informed decisions about the safety of their children.

“We call to action our schools, school districts, school boards, city and county councils, state legislators, OPSI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) and law enforcement agencies to have the discussion and be our advocates for positive change regarding current state laws that are impacting our schools, children, families,” Hillaire told The Herald. “You have the full support of the community you serve.

“As leaders, you have the responsibility to never take away the feeling of hope and safety from your people. When just one of our mothers is concerned, that should always be enough to take action.”

Information for sex offenders living in the area is available at the sheriff’s office’s website, and Elfo said his office will coordinate with the school to release information and answer questions.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.
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