When WPLG — a South Florida ABC-affiliated TV station also known as Local 10 — reported that over 100 registered sex offenders are students, staff or faculty at Florida’s universities, colleges and vocational schools on Feb. 24, many members of the NSU community were surprised to learn that two registered sex offenders were at NSU.
However, NSU has since confirmed that both were online students and one has already graduated.
The WPLG news team learned from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that, while nearly every South Florida institution has registered sex offenders either enrolled or employed, most students are not aware of this because the state does not make the information easily accessible.
Dave Dawson, executive director of the Office of University Relations, was surprised by Local 10’s findings, but said, “The safety of the NSU community — students, faculty, and visitors — is paramount [and] most important. We provide a safe place to study and free of distractions. We will never put our students at risk.”
However, Dawson believes that, regardless of criminal background, all students should be allowed to pursue an education.
“If someone wants to [pursue] an online degree to better themselves, I think everyone deserves a second chance, but that’s all factored in by the folks who do the accepting,” he said.
Bibiana Avendeno, junior biology major, said, “I don’t think this is an issue if the offenders were online students, because there would not be any physical interaction with the student body.”
Gay Holliday, associate dean of student services, said that it is the responsibility of anyone applying to NSU to disclose any and all criminal convictions on applications. If a prospective student were to disclose a conviction(s), the respective program’s admissions committee would be responsible for deciding whether to ask the individual for more information, and ultimately, whether or not to admit him or her. Depending on the program, an admissions committee may ask for a background check — of which there are several types, or ask to speak with the prospective student.
“Just because someone has been convicted of a felony, it does not [necessarily] mean they will not be admitted to the university,” said Holliday.
In addition to prospective students, Holliday said that “just because a [current student] says ‘I have been convicted of a crime,’ does not mean they’ll be removed from the institution.”
Maria Pinto, director of client services in the Office of Human Resources, said that NSU works to prevent hiring employees or faculty with convictions.
“For well over 15 years, NSU has required criminal conviction screenings of employees who work with or have access to children and other vulnerable populations,” she said. “[They] undergo — what the state defines as — a level-two screening, and that includes fingerprinting. The databases that are searched as a result of this screening would capture any sexual predators, local and state criminal [offenses] and FBI records.”
According to Pinto, if a potential employee’s screening raised a criminal background, he or she would be brought in, made aware of what the screening found, and given a chance to explain.
Jobs that undergo similar screenings are what Holliday called “safety sensitive” positions, such as positions at the Recreational Complex. Jobs not classified as “safety sensitive” do not require background checks.
According to Robert J. Pietrykowski, vice president of human resources, “[The screenings] are not limited strictly to the crimes Local 10 reported on. It [shows] the entire criminal conviction history of any individual who applies for employment. We go beyond that and use the same screening process for vendors and contractors that come on campus.”
According to state records published online by Local 10 in a 10- page report, there are five registered sex offenders at Florida International University’s main campus and 10 throughout Broward College’s campuses. Additional offenders were found at St. Thomas University, Florida Atlantic University, Barry University, the University of Florida, Palm Beach State College, Miami-Dade College and dozens of other colleges. WPLG reported that the only South Florida campus without a registered sex offender was the University of Miami.
Chris Mignocchi, junior exercise science major and president of NSU’s Undergraduate Student Government Association, said, “It’s a slippery slope when it comes to certain types of disclosure and blasting that information out to thousands of students could violate their privacy. If most of the student body feels that they should know about that information, then maybe a disclosure policy should be adopted into NSU’s admission requirements.”
Dawson said, “I understand the students’ concern, but I can assure they have nothing to worry about.”
He cited NSU policies and safety services, such as the Emergency Notification System and the blue light phones throughout campus, as measures to insure safety.