Issues - sex -Abuse - Rights for sex offenders?
When parents in Athol learned last year about Harold J. Fay,
a sex offender living down the street from an elementary school,
mothers and fathers who once allowed their children to walk
alone to the Sanders Street School made time to walk beside
One mother showed Fay's mug shot to her 5-year-old son and
warned, "This person hurts children." Parents called
police, the school's principal, and Fay's probation officer,
wanting to know what could be done.
Nothing, they were told. Fay, a convicted sex offender rated
by a state board as a high risk for offending again, was living,
as required, at least 500 feet from the school. Even so, last
month, after Fay allegedly violated his probation by visiting
friends when their children were home, a judge heeded parents'
complaints and ordered Fay to move away from the school.
The unusual order highlights an emerging dilemma as the state
nears the end of its classification of more than 6,600 sex
offenders: balancing the protection of children with the rights
of convicted sex offenders, especially those deemed most dangerous,
who are living legally near schools.
Senator Stephen M. Brewer, a Democrat whose district includes
Athol, is researching a bill that would ban sex offenders
from residing near public or private schools. The main difficulty,
he said, is crafting a law that could survive court challenges
over the constitutional rights of sex offenders.
After constituents called Brewer to complain that Fay lived
near the elementary school, the state senator lobbied Fay's
probation officer, asking him to recommend that the 64-year-old
man be required to find another home.
Other communities are struggling with the same issues. In
Lynn, Councilor Timothy Phelan was stunned to learn that a
sex offender lives near his daughter's elementary school.
Phelan proposed that the city mail a listing of the most dangerous
sex offenders -- Lynn has 23 classified by the state as Level
3, the most likely to commit more crimes -- to every resident
in the city. The first annual mailing is scheduled to go out
And in Framingham, Selectwoman Ginger Esty has been calling
attention to two Level 3 offenders who live near the Framingham
Community Charter School. "The walking routes to schools
are a minefield," said Esty, who has mapped where the
town's sex offenders live.
Some schools notify parents about any offenders who have been
classified by the state Sex Offender Registry Board as Level
3. The state Department of Education requires schools to adopt
a policy on whether they inform parents of Level 3 offenders
living nearby, but doesn't suggest what that policy should
"We're not recommending that they do or that they don't,"
said spokeswoman Heidi Perlman.
Residents can also get addresses and see photos of local sex
offenders from their police stations. Police decide locally
how widely to publicize the faces of Level 3 offenders. In
Athol, schools do not notify parents about sex offenders,
but their photos are published in the local newspaper and
posted in the town library.
John Swomley, a defense lawyer who has represented sex offenders,
is troubled by the increasing restrictions on their lives
after they have finished serving their prison sentences. He
has seen clients ostracized and lose their jobs and their
homes, after they are classified as sex offenders.
The registry mocks the goal of reintegrating offenders into
society, Swomley said.
"Everything about this whole law runs counter to that,"
he said. "Their little scarlet letter is following them
In Athol, a blue-collar community about 38 miles northwest
of Worcester, Fay was fitted last week with an electronic
ankle bracelet. He can only leave his house for approved excursions,
including doctors' visits and church.
Fay said he's struggling to find a new apartment by the end
of the month, the deadline given by his probation officer.
Fay, whose name is well known among Athol's 11,000 residents,
had no luck when he inquired about every apartment listing
in two local papers, he said.
"Everyone I call either hangs up on me or tells me they
haven't got anything," he said. "[It's] because
I'm a registered sex offender."
Fay spent three years in prison after he was convicted of
five counts of exposing and touching himself in front of children.
He found the Sanders Street apartment in 2002 with the help
of a friend. It was a rare apartment that he could afford
on his monthly disability check of $783, he said.
"I think it's unfair," he said. "I don't bother
anyone where I'm living."
Susan J. Loehn, a Franklin County prosecutor, argued before
Superior Court Judge John Agostini that Fay's probation violation
should send him back to prison. She also argues that because
Fay's backyard abuts a schoolyard, it's not clear that he
is 500 feet away from the school.
Some Athol parents argue that Fay's right to live where he
chooses places their children at risk. Paul Landry Jr., the
father of two children, asked officials to take action when
he learned that Fay was living near the school. "As far
as I'm concerned, the civil rights of a criminal shouldn't
take precedence over the civil rights of a kid," Landry
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.