Northern Heights Elementary parents concerned by presence of Level III sex offender

Bellingham Public Schools, the Bellingham Police Department and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office are working with a group of parents of students at Northern Heights Elementary School who are concerned that a Level III convicted sex offender has been at the school.

“Yes, we have had some families reach out,” school district spokesperson Dana Smith told The Bellingham Herald, “and we have been working directly with them to answer their questions.”

Smith said the district partners with area law enforcement to follow legal requirements, and said it refers parents who have questions about the sex offender registration process to the sheriff’s office, which “possesses the most relevant information.” Smith added that school and district leaders also are available to have conversations with parents or answer questions about school safety.

Angela Menchaca, who has a student at Northern Heights, sent The Herald a copy of the Sexual Offender Notification form for Robert Leroy Smith and said parents were handing out copies of the form Thursday, Oct. 10.

Dana Smith said that, by law, Robert Smith is able to check in as a visitor and be on school grounds because he has a child attending the school.

Sheriff Bill Elfo confirmed that Robert Smith is a Level III sex offender and that he was last convicted in 2009 for an offense that occurred in 1999 when he was 23 years old and forced sexual contact with an 11-year-old girl. Elfo said Robert Smith also has a juvenile record that includes sexual contact with male and female children and has been convicted of other, non-sex-related crimes since 2006.

“As Level III sex offenders are, by definition, classified as having a high risk to sexually re-offend, we are very certainly concerned with his presence at the school,” Elfo told The Herald. “However, Washington state law does not provide the sheriff’s office with any legal authority or ability to restrict Smith’s lawful activities, including entering a school campus, unless the school communicates to him that he is excluded or restricted from campus.

“It is not a crime for him to be on the campus of the school unless the school excludes or limits his access.”

Robert Smith is not currently on parole, probation or community control, Elfo said.

At the sheriff’s office’s request, Dana Smith said the district is reminding parents that, “it is illegal to harass, stalk, or threaten offenders or members of their families.”

She also said that all visitors at Northern Heights Elementary — and at all schools in the district — are asked to check in at the office, sign in, share their purpose and get a visitor’s badge, which must be returned when they sign out.

The district also requires criminal background checks for any volunteer who will have regularly scheduled, unsupervised access to elementary students. Dana Smith said the Robert Smith has not been approved to be a volunteer at the school.

Elfo said the sheriff’s office will provide community notification through different means and will monitor Robert Smith’s actions “to assess potential dangers.”

Elfo said the sheriff’s office is working and communicating with school authorities, and, since Northern Heights is within Bellingham city limits, it is coordinating with the Bellingham Police Department.

“People with any knowledge of suspicious activities on the part of (Robert) Smith, should contact the sheriff’s office (or if on the school campus, the Bellingham Police Department) by dialing 911,” Elfo said.

Elfo said that Washington state law, specifically RCW 9A.44.128 and RCW 9.94A.030, requires anyone convicted of a sex offense to register as a sex offender and with the sheriff’s office when released from jail or prison.

“Sex offender levels are determined by taking into account several factors about the offender and the nature of his or her crime in order to determine possible risks to the community at large,” Elfo told The Herald.

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.

“The sheriff’s office’s legal authority is to provide community notification through multiple means and we attempt to monitor Smith’s actions to assess potential dangers,” Elfo said.

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.