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Schools Debate Whether to Allow Sex Offender Parents on School Grounds

School boards across the country are debating how to deal with parents like Cody Mittleider.

The 28-year-old married father of three young children spent a year in prison for a 2005 rape conviction, but has since worked to become a respected member of the community. He quit drinking, attends counseling, got a job at a potato farm and joined the volunteer fire department in this central North Dakota town of about 760 residents.

But as a convicted sex offender, Mittleider, is not allowed to attend his children's school programs or athletic events, pending a Steele School Board decision.

"It would punish my family more than it would punish me," he said. "I want to be a father — not a criminal. If I can't go to the school, I can't be the father I want to be."

A new state law, which took effect Aug. 1, allows sex offenders to be on school property if they are there to vote or attend a public meeting. It does not give them permission to attend extracurricular school activities. That decision rests with school boards.

School boards in most states now have policies dealing with sex-offender parents in schools, though they vary by state and district, said Cullen Casey, an attorney for the Alexandria-Va.-based National School Boards Association.

Some districts, especially larger ones, often do not have the resources or time to deal with decisions about parents who are registered sex offenders, so they are banned altogether, Casey said.

In Fargo, North Dakota's largest city, the district adopted a no-tolerance approach before the state law was enacted that regulates sex offenders on school property.

"Right now, they are simply not allowed in," Superintendent Rick Buresh said. "It's not a matter of punishment — it's an issue of protection. I am somewhat sympathetic if somebody's rights get pinched a little, but safety comes first."

The Mandan (N.D.) School District, adopted a no-tolerance approach last month that bans convicted sex offenders from schools even if they are parents.

"Right now, the safest thing to do is err on the side of kids and just say no," said Wilfred Volesky, the district's superintendent.

"If we need to take the policy and soften it, we can," he said.

Volesky said the new policy already has allowed the district to ban a convicted sex offender from attending high school football games. That person was not a parent of a student at the district, but parents of two of the district's 3,262 students are registered sex offenders, Volesky said.

Other districts are considering allowing school officials to make the call on a case-by-case basis.

Shannon Priem, a spokeswoman for the Oregon School Boards Association, said state law there requires background checks on volunteers who accompany students on field trips and other activities. There is nothing in the law to address sex-offending parents who want to attend activities at schools.

Her group, which represents 197 school districts, "strongly favors school boards making local decisions," she said. "A school board has to be responsible to its particular culture and community."

School principals in Georgia's 180 districts typically decide whether a sex-offending parent is allowed on school property, said Laura Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Georgia School Boards Association.

Steele Superintendent Ken Miller said the school board tabled a motion this month to adopt a policy dealing with sex offenders whose children attend school in the district. At present, Mittleider is the only one, Miller said

Later this month, the North Dakota School Board Association is slated to discuss the issue of sex offenders in schools, and how districts are dealing with it. Miller said the Steele School Board likely will craft its policy after that meeting.

Kathy Benson, president of the Steele board and a mother of four, said keeping the schools safe is a priority for parents. She said the sex offender policy has not been a major issue in the community, but board members will give it their full attention.

"We want to be cautious and we want to be very careful and take a good look at it," Benson said.