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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 15, 2007

Fama volat

Rumor is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.

— William Shakespeare, King Henry the Fourth, Part II

Some Cub Scouts came to visit our office last week to see what a newspaper is all about. To stress the importance of finding facts, we played a game with them, called "Rumor." As one boy whispered to the next, sometimes with giggles, sometimes with solemn looks, the original thought was so changed that, by the end, it was unrecognizable.

That often happens in the real world, too.

Each week, we try to quell the rumors that swirl about our schools, our towns, our community by printing the truth, or as much of it as we can find, in black and white.

Last week, we printed a story about a registered sex offender who had recently moved into the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District. Since New York State adopted its version of Meghan’s Law in 1996, our newspaper has printed the names, crimes, and locations of the Level 3 sex offenders who live in our coverage area — Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns.

Until last year, only Level 3 offenders, defined as the most likely to re-offend, were listed in the state’s registry. Since July, Level 2 offenders are listed as well, so we report on those now, too.

The BKW district had sent home notices with elementary-school students because the victim was of elementary-school age. The district acted responsibly in letting parents know about the sex offender living on Witter Road in Knox.

But BKW had not been notified by official channels. The superintendent, Steve Schrade, said he had found out from the Altamont Elementary School principal, Peter Brabant.

"A parent told me that a parent told her," Brabant told us. "Rumors fly through here quickly," he said.

To his credit, Brabant went on-line to the registry kept by the state’s Criminal Justice Department, found out about the offender, and called the BKW superintendent who, in turn, informed those who might be vulnerable.

Schrade said he doesn’t think it should be the district’s responsibility to notify residents. "I think it’s the job of law enforcement, but they leave it to us," he said.

That can leave gaping holes.

In December, after we ran a story profiling a sex offender in the years since he left prison, a New Scotland resident called us to say a sex offender had moved into town but no one had been notified. We then wrote about that sex offender, detailing his crime and stating his address.

When we wrote that story, the New Scotland supervisor, Ed Clark, said he was not aware of the sex offender. Notification, he said, was the responsibility of the law-enforcement agency, in this case, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.

"They inform all the people they feel appropriate to inform," said Clark.

The resident who had called us, however, was concerned that she had not been informed through local law enforcement or the town. "I worry about my children — the safety of the neighborhood," she said. "You feel like you’re in a safe area. That shatters your system of safety."

The hit-or-miss method of notification is troubling. Last week, the Knox town supervisor, Michael Hammond, like the New Scotland town supervisor in December, told us he wasn’t aware a sex offender had moved into town. He, too, said he isn’t contacted through any official notification process, and that the town does not have a policy to notify its residents of sex offenders who have moved into town.

New York’s 1996 law says law-enforcement agencies may disseminate relevant information to any entity with a vulnerable population. New York’s law allows people to look up information on Level 3 and now Level 2 sex offenders but it doesn’t require the police, who have the information, to bring it to the public.

We laud the approach taken by the town board in Guilderland which listed itself as "a vulnerable entity" so it would be informed of sex offenders living in town. First Sergeant William Ward with the Guilderland Police typically prepares bulletins and distributes them to people living near a sex offender when one moves into town; Ward also informs schools and day-care centers that are nearby and he posts the information on the town’s website.

Guilderland looked at agencies across the United States, Ward said, to develop its own point system — based on the sex offender’s relationship to his victim, the age of the victim, the level of force used, the victim’s injury, and unusual circumstances — to categorize the offenders. If the points total more than 12, notification is made, Ward explained.

We were heartened this week to receive word from the Albany County Legislature that minority leader Christine Benedict, a Republican from Colonie, has introduced a bill that calls for the formation of a committee to recommend guidelines for the placement of convicted sex offenders.

Up until now, Benedict said in a statement, the county has dealt with sex offenders’ living arrangements on a piecemeal basis. She called for unilateral guidelines to make residents feel safe.

One of the best ways to make residents safe is to inform them responsibly of where sex offenders are living. Such information, as we have stressed before, can offer protection, but it can also be misused. We have a right to know about a sex offender living in our midst but we also have a responsibility to see that that person is not harassed or hurt.

We once asked first Sergeant Ward if he worried about vigilantes taking matters into their own hands. "You have to," he said. "Part of the law is to make the public aware of offenders but built into it is also to make them aware, if you become a vigilante, you’re in danger of losing that privilege."

The bulletins Ward has produced on sex offenders state, "This notification is not intended to increase fear; rather, it is our belief that an informed public is a safer public."

We intend to quell rumors by printing facts; we believe the blunt monster with uncounted heads can be silenced by the truth.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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