In NC, some parents plead to move bus stops away from sex offenders

Posted October 5, 2016 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated October 5, 2016 12:49 p.m. EDT

Raleigh mother Sharon Moll Mixon

— If you ask Sharon Moll Mixon, her Raleigh neighborhood is the best-kept secret in the city. Her one-acre property is surrounded by tall trees and quiet streets. The tranquil setting is surprising, given that it's tucked just inside Interstate 440 off Western Boulevard.

But just down the road, in her "secret little pocket" of a neighborhood, as she calls it, Mixon sees danger.

"This is the house," she said, pointing to a neighbor's home nestled back in the woods, less than a quarter-mile walk from her home.

Each day, Mixon's children and other kids in the neighborhood walk by the house to get to their bus stop. They wait for the bus in a heavily wooded area within a few hundred feet of the home.

The problem, Mixon says, is two registered sex offenders live there. Both men were convicted of crimes against children.

"As a mom, it makes you feel uncomfortable," Mixon said. "Why dangle bait in front of them two times a day?"

Checking for sex offenders 'isn't feasible'

In North Carolina, registered sex offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school or child care center. But it's not against the law for them to live near school bus stops. There's also nothing preventing schools from placing bus stops near known offenders.

Some school systems, like Orange County Schools, check sex offender registries when deciding where to place bus stops. But others, like Wake and Durham county schools, don't.

In 2012, the WRAL Investigates team found 11 sex offenders living together in a house next to several school bus stops in Durham. Eight of the offenders had records for crimes against children. Parents WRAL spoke with at the time said they didn't know sex offenders were living so close to their children's bus stop.

Derek Graham, transportation chief for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says placing bus stops away from sex offenders "is a good guideline, but in practice is often impractical and often impossible."

"This is very much a local issue requiring local input and discretion and would be very hard to legislate at the state level, in my opinion," he said.

Sometimes, students live at the same address as registered sex offenders, according to Graham. Another hurdle is finding bus stops for students who live in highly populated areas where sex offenders are hard to avoid.

Lisa Luten, director of communications for the Wake County Public School System, uses her own home as an example. She is surrounded by apartment complexes and says the nearest school bus stop that's not near a sex offender is 6 miles away.

"Children can't walk that far," Luten said. "The reality is sex offenders move around frequently, and we have a lot of bus stops and a lot of students."

The maximum distance Wake County students are allowed to walk to a bus stop is three-tenths of a mile for elementary students and half a mile for middle and high students, per school board policy. Stops are usually placed on street corners and no closer than two-tenths of a mile apart.

Luten says it simply "isn't feasible" for a school system of Wake County's size to check for sex offenders when plotting more than 20,000 morning bus stops. The district encourages parents to be at the stops with their children.

More than 660 registered sex offenders live in Wake County, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. The agency's website allows users to search by address to see if any offenders live within a 5-mile radius. The site includes pictures of the offenders and information about their criminal history. Users can also sign up to get emailed notifications when a sex offender moves to within a certain radius of their home.

If a parent discovers that their child's bus stop is near a sex offender, they can request that the bus stop be moved. But just because they ask for a new stop doesn't mean they will get one.

Homeowner: Mother has 'a very valid concern'

Since July, Wake schools has received more than 750 requests through its online customer service form to change bus stops for various reasons, such as traffic conditions and other safety concerns, according to Luten.

"Anytime someone brings a safety concern to our attention, it is reviewed," she said.

Wake schools estimates it receives about 50 requests each year to move bus stops because of sex offenders. Roughly less than half of those requests are granted, school transportation officials estimate.

Wake school officials were unable to provide WRAL News with exact numbers, according to Luten, because they don't have a way to search for specific terms, such as "sex offender," in the online complaints they receive from parents.

"The idea of gathering online feedback is very new to us," Luten said. "We're working on improving that."

In Durham Public Schools, parents can also request a new bus stop if their children are near sex offenders. But it's unclear how often that happens and how many requests are granted.

"Our transportation department hasn’t tracked those requests," Chip Sudderth, Durham schools' chief communications officer, told WRAL News by email.

Raleigh mother Sharon Moll Mixon, whose children were assigned to a bus stop near two sex offenders, was one of the parents who requested a new stop this school year.

On Aug. 25, she submitted an online request to Wake schools to move the stop closer to her home. Five days later, she received an email from the transportation department saying it had denied her request because the bus stop is centrally located and does not violate school board policy.

After Wake schools denied her request, Mixon filed an appeal and outlined four reasons why she wanted the stop moved. One of those reasons was to avoid the two sex offenders living in a house nearby.

The owner of the home, who lives with the two sex offenders and rents space to them, said he understands Mixon's concern but assures her that his tenants are not a threat. He says he took the men in after being encouraged by his priest to help others.

"If I believed there was any reasonable threat to anyone at all in this neighborhood, then these guys would not be here. They just wouldn't," said the homeowner, who asked that his name not be used. "I trust these guys with my life. I absolutely do. We all make mistakes, but people can and do change and these guys certainly have."

Still, the homeowner said, he understands why Mixon asked for a new bus stop.

"I think Sharon has a very valid concern, and I think other parents should share her concern," he said. "I fully understand. I mean, I'm sure I would have the very same concerns."

Mother: 'How many parents pay attention?'

When Mixon decided to file an appeal for a new bus stop, she had to write a letter to Wake schools' transportation department, which requires all appeals to be mailed to the school system.

"I don't feel like they've made it easy," she said.

After filing her appeal, Mixon emailed WRAL News to share her frustrations. About an hour after WRAL contacted Wake schools to inquire about her case, the school system contacted Mixon and agreed to set up a telephone meeting, which is standard with appeals.

Last week, she spoke with a senior transportation planner, and he agreed to move her bus stop away from the sex offenders.

"He kept thanking me for being my child's advocate and made it clear that they are willing to work with us," Mixon said. "I'm thrilled. I'm very happy that you can actually make something happen if you are persistent enough. But it definitely took some persistence."

She encourages other parents to find out who is living near their children's bus stop and ask for a new location, if necessary.

"How many parents pay attention?" she said. "You're putting your kid in a situation that you didn't even know was a bad situation because you just assumed the public school wouldn't put them into that ... You gotta be careful."