Signs will warn sex offenders to stay off school grounds

Law enforcement officials will soon visit the homes of 760 sex offenders and 85 sexual predators in Marion County as part of a new program aimed at reminding convicted sex offenders that they are forbidden to be on the property of schools and child care facilities.

As part of the program, which is being spearheaded by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, officials will place 180 warning signs at strategic locations on each of the school district’s 51 school campuses. The large signs, which will be 3 feet by 3 feet, will include the portion of sex crime statute 856.022(4)(b), which restricts the locations offenders can visit.

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods appeared before the School Board on Tuesday to float the sign request. The School Board agreed that the signs should be placed at schools as preventative measure to keep children safe. The sign movement was not triggered by a local incident.

“I was excited to hear about the program,” School Board member Bobby James said. “This is an excellent idea and thanks for bringing it to us.”

The sign implementation is the brainchild of Chief Deputy Robert Douglas, who was Woods’ pick for his second-in-command. Douglas was named chief deputy after Woods took office in January.

Douglas worked for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office for 25 years until 2003. Soon after losing to then-incumbent Sheriff Ed Dean in 2004, Douglas served 11 years as chief of police in Chiefland.

Douglas approached Levy County Sheriff Bobby McCallum several years ago about the idea. Both men appeared before the Levy County School Board, which agreed with the plan. Woods heard about the program and asked Douglas to create the same program in Marion. Douglas met with all of the county’s law enforcement agencies, the State Attorney’s Office and School Board member Bobby James.

“They all like the idea and Bobby (James) said to bring it before the School Board,” Douglas said.

The Sheriff’s Office created one sign to show the School Board on Tuesday. Now that the board gave its blessing, more signs will be made and likely be put into place by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. The school district and the Sheriff’s Office will split the $7,740 estimated cost of the 180 signs. The Public Education Foundation of Marion County, a fundraising arm of the school district, agreed to pay the school district’s portion, according to board member Beth McCall.

The signs will be placed on school grounds at the following locations: front office entrances, vehicle drop-off and pick-up lines, gymnasium entrances, football stadium entrances and baseball/softball field entrances. The signs will be supplied to the district, which will install them.

Lt. Carlton Curtis, a supervisor in the Sheriff’s Office’s juvenile division, said all the law enforcement agencies will team together to visit the 845 offenders and predators to give them a copy of the state child sex law. They will ask the offenders to sign a receipt of the document that states they have read and understand the law. Douglas said the offenders will also have to give a thumbprint to authenticate it.

Curtis said all the law enforcement agencies want these sex offenders to understand that they cannot walk onto school grounds, even to sporting events. The idea is that if one of these offenders were caught on school grounds in the future that they cannot use ignorance as a defense.

Florida law states that all people convicted of a sex crime against minors are considered sexual offenders. An upgraded sexual predator designation can be added by the court if the person committed a first-degree felony sex crime, or two second-degree felony sex crimes within 10 years.

Curtis said people convicted of sex crimes can be on their child’s school grounds in limited circumstances, such as in a car in the student drop-off or pick-up line or in the office to sign a child out of school. That same offender would have to provide school officials a written request to attend school functions, such as award ceremonies or other events.

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