Add school boards to the list of places child sex offenders will likely soon no longer be welcome.
The Senate on Thursday passed HB64, a bill that would bar child sex offenders from running for school boards in Utah. The bill has now passed the full Legislature and heads to the governor for his signature.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, decided to run the bill after registered sex offender Richard Wagner Jones ran for a seat on the Granite School District Board last year. Jones lost, but Moss said many of her constituents were outraged he was allowed to run. Jones spent five years in prison and 10 years on probation after a 1990 second-degree felony conviction of sexual abuse of a child.
"I think parents have a right to know that their children are in an environment where they’re not exposed to somebody who has been in prison for sexually assaulting a child," Moss said Thursday.
Attempts to reach Jones for comment were not immediately successful, but he spoke out against the bill at a Senate hearing in February. He said the chance that truly rehabilitated offenders, such as himself, would reoffend was slim, and school board members do not necessarily need to have access to children.
"As a rehabilitated offender, my commitment to preventing more crimes is strong and more victims is strong," Jones told lawmakers at the time. He argued that the choice of whom to elect should be up to voters.
The bill also faced opposition in the House and Senate, with some also saying they didn’t want to take choice away from voters and others criticizing the bill for, they said, targeting one individual. Moss responded to such arguments by noting voters might not always be able to make the best choice in the future if a candidate were, for example, to run unopposed.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, ultimately voted in favor of the bill, but said during initial Senate floor debate Wednesday she was concerned that it addressed only sex offenders, not others who commit crimes against children.
Debate also sometimes veered into a discussion about the merits of forgiveness versus caution.
"I firmly believe just because someone once made a mistake it doesn’t change who they are, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have rights," said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, during debate Wednesday before voting against the bill. "I’m concerned we send a message with this that some people are beyond forgiveness and can never recover and can never again move on with their lives."
But arguments about protecting children and electing board members who can be around them won the day. HB64 passed the Senate 19-5 on Thursday and the House by 47-27 in early February.
"We’re talking about people who have committed grievous sexual offenses against a child," Jones said Wednesday. She said such offenders, who have paid their dues, should be free to run for other offices, but not school board.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said the most compelling argument, to him, was that: "Someone in this situation cannot fulfill their duties as a board member. They cannot go into the school or be around the children or system they’re supposed to be governing."
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