Megan's Law prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school. But that provision does not extend to school bus stops, presenting challenges to parents and school officials in New Jersey as more than 20,000 buses take hundreds of thousands of students to and from school each day.
Two of those children are Mace Hagel, 12, and her sister Brianna, 8. The girls have a choice of two routes home from their school bus stop in Galloway Township, Atlantic County, and each poses a potential danger.
The first route requires them to walk a short distance along the shoulder of heavily traveled Route 30. The second route requires them to walk past the house of a registered sex offender.
Their mother, Kelly Hagel, wants the local school district to move the bus stop closer to her street corner, or have it turn down her street. But district officials said it's not that simple. They must also look at traffic safety issues, and there are concerns that moving the bus stop closer to a curve on Route 30 would make it more dangerous.
"The bus must be able to stop, drop off children, then continue in the safest manner possible," Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said.
When sex offenders register their addresses, as required by law, county prosecutor's offices notify the parties required by the law. For riskier Tier 2 and Tier 3 offenders the notification includes local school officials. As of Friday there were 3,257 people on New Jersey's sex offender registry. In Galloway Township there are 18, including the Tier 2 offender near the Hagels' bus stop, and there are 35 in Egg Harbor Township, 33 in Millville, 24 in Vineland, and 34 in Middle Township. In Atlantic City, where most children walk to neighborhood schools, there are 163 registered sex offenders.
School officials who receive the information are prohibited from publicizing it, but are expected to use it to protect the children in their care. That may include telling a school bus driver or crossing guard to be on the alert for the sex offender when children are present. It may include moving a bus stop, but other safety factors must also be considered. If parents are to be notified, that is done by law enforcement based on the law's requirements, and not by the school.
In Hagel's case, the sex offender lives about a block from the bus stop, but his house is along the route that is safer for the children to walk to their home. Hagel said they have had no contact or problems with the man, but her children are aware he is there, and try to avoid him. She will meet them at the stop depending on her work schedule. She said if the bus would instead drop the children off at her corner, they could walk straight home without passing his house.
Giaquinto said they did review the situation with local law enforcement officials, and moving the stop was not advised.
"We totally understand the parent's sensitivity, and we did not dismiss her concerns" she said. "But we have to look at all of the safety issues."
A July 2010 report on "Selecting School Bus Stop Locations" by the National Center for Safe Routes to School and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the location of bars, adults stores and sex offenders may all play a role in determining bus stops. But the focus of the report was on traffic safety.
"The issue of sex offenders does come up," said Danielle Abe, director of marketing for the National School Transportation Association. "But for us, traffic safety is the issue that looms large."
Software is available that allows transportation coordinators to link their bus routing software to the sex offender database. Ted Thien, vice president of marketing for Tyler Technologies, said the company's Versatran system gives school districts the ability to import the sex offender addresses into the system. The software will then alert the user to the locations as they map out their school bus routes.
Timothy Wallace, president of the New Jersey School Bus Owners Association said in an e-mail that bus stops are typically determined by a committee of school and law enforcement personnel. He said multiple issues go into assigning bus stops, including the speed on the road, traffic hazards, cross streets and driveways, and how many stops the bus will have to make on a road, causing traffic to back up.
School bus companies require drivers to stop only at assigned stops because of insurance liability, Wallace said. A driver might recommend a change, and Wallace would recommend moving a stop away from a sex offender, but the final decision would have to be made by district officials or the Board of Education.
Hagel said she plans to compile documentation for the Board of Education demonstrating why it would be safer for the bus to drop the children off by her home.
Georgia's law prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop, but it is being challenged in court and is currently not enforced, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Transportation coordinators in other local districts said the sex offender issue comes up occasionally and each case is handled on an individual basis. They will often go out themselves to see whether the bus stop can be safely moved, or the child can be moved to another bus stop. They have to be aware that solving a problem for one child might create a problem for another. And ultimately, it is parents who are responsible for getting the children safely to the bus stop.
"If we can give them an alternative, we will," said Vineland school transportation coordinator Joseph Callavini. "But we can't always do that. We need the parents to help us, too."
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