It all started when a registered sex offender came to Chiefland Elementary School to watch a holiday play. A parent recognizes the offender and tells the assistant principal, who calls Chiefland Police.
This series of events led to Levy County schools adding signs telling sex offenders to stay away from campuses, according to Chiefland Police Chief Robert Douglas.
He said no children were affected or harmed and the offender wasn’t arrested. The 48 signs, which totaled $600 and are spread across 14 schools, are a joint effort from the Levy County School Board and Levy County Sheriff’s Office.
Levy County Sheriff Bobby McCallum, who was elected in 2012, said he’s aware of only two incidents in Levy County since he became sheriff: the one in Chiefland and another occurrence where parents reported concerns in Cedar Key.
“To my knowledge, there has been no bigger issue,” he said. “It’s all preventative.”
State law dictates that a registered sex offender who wants to attend an after-school event with students younger than 18 must notify the school. If the request is approved, the sex offender is supervised by a designated chaperone while on campus.
A Chiefland Elementary School employee said the school could not comment on the event, which Douglas said happened late last year.
Cedar Key Police Chief Virgil Sandlin said the incident at Cedar Key School resulted from “overzealous parents.”
Sandlin said a sex offender who used to live in the community wanted to attend his son’s sporting events and parents became angry.
“None of the children were, at any point, endangered,” Sandlin said. “He’s an atheist, and that stirred up more problems than the fact that he was also an offender.”
He said the city’s schools will have the signs, but children were never in harm’s way.
“If this guy was really a threat, we would’ve been more aggressive than what we were,” he said.
‘In Their Interest’
According to Florida’s sex-offender laws, sex offenders are allowed to drop off and pick up their own children or grandchildren from school.
Jeff Edison, assistant superintendent of administration for the Levy County School Board, said parents have voiced concern about sex offenders being able to get on campuses easily.
Edison said the signs will remind sex offenders of the restraints that come with being a registered offender.
“It’s in their interest to not be there if they’re not supposed to be there because it’s a violation,” Edison said.
Despite parents’ fears, University of Florida law professor and former prosecutor Bob Dekle said it’s unlikely for a stranger to pick a child at random to harm.
“The nightmare scenario is some stranger snatching your child off the street,” he said. “That’s a very low-probability occurrence.”
The more likely scenario is a relative or family friend harming a child, he said.
Dekle said he thinks it’s unlikely a sex offender doesn’t already know the rules.
“It would be difficult for someone who’s a designated sexual offender or sexual predator to not know what the requirements are,” he said.
A Greater Worry
McCallum said the county’s number of sex offenders also raises concern.
Levy County has the second-highest ratio of sex offenders in north central Florida, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The county’s 180 sex offenders and predators make up 0.45 percent of the county’s population, or about 45 offenders per 10,000 people. Offenders gain predator designation after committing multiple sex crimes or a violent sex crime involving a child. Levy County has 20 sexual predators and 160 offenders currently registered with FDLE.
According to FDLE, there are 10,920 registered predators and 54,092 registered offenders in Florida. An analysis of Florida’s 67 counties shows that the average number of offenders and predators for Florida counties is 0.2 percent, or about 20 offenders per 10,000 people.
“For the size of the county, we’re dealing with – in my opinion – an abnormal amount of offenders and predators,” McCallum said.
Sex offenders with victims younger than 16 cannot live within 1,000 feet of any school, daycare, park or playground. Because of the spacious, rural nature of the county there are more residences in the area that fit the statutory requirements, McCallum said.
“It’s not a new statute. It’s been there,” he said. “We’ve come to the realization that maybe some offenders and predators aren’t totally familiar with that.”
Geoffery Farnsworth is a 34-year-old registered sex offender who lives in Dunnellon. He was added to the sex offender registry in 2004 after being convicted of lewd molestation of an elderly or disabled person, according to Levy County court records.
Farnsworth said he thinks the signs don’t get to the root of the issue.
“It’s not going to work when you’re dealing with people who have done their sentences and done what they had to do,” he said. “It’s not those people you have to worry about. It’s the people that have not been caught yet.”
Farnsworth isn’t personally affected by the law because he doesn’t have any school-aged children, but he said he has sympathy for rehabilitated offenders who might miss out on their children’s lives.
“It does kind of make it hard for the offender who got caught up in the wrong situation and is just trying to deal with life and get by,” he said.
Sara Creel, a 41-year-old Bronson resident, said she doesn’t let her 11-year-old daughter ride her bike alone, because she worries about sex offenders.
“I live on the only road in my subdivision that doesn’t have sex offenders in it,” she said. “We’re tired of it in Levy County.”
Creel said she has mixed feelings about the signs because “someone bent on causing destruction is going to find a way to do it.”
“I send my daughter to school thinking nothing’s going to happen,” she said. “You expect a certain degree of protection.”
Sandlin, the Cedar Key police chief, said Cedar Key School doesn’t have the capability to provide chaperones, which means the school now has a “zero-tolerance” policy for sex offenders.
“It’s a delicate situation,” he said.