Predators’ presence shocks schools
April 23, 2005
By Vesna Jaksic, Martin Cassidy and Sabrina Banes
Private school officials and parents expressed shock and concern yesterday after learning that a homeless shelter at Westchester County Airport within walking distance of their campuses houses convicted sex offenders.
Further complicating matters was news that some public school students have volunteered their time at the shelter.
The State of New York Sex Offender Registry yesterday showed five men age 39 to 47 living at the Westchester Airport Shelter in Rye Brook, N.Y., near Convent of the Sacred Heart and Brunswick School, two schools in Greenwich with King Street campuses.
The offenders were convicted of crimes such as first-degree sodomy of a 13-year-old girl and first-degree rape of a 26-year-old woman. Other sex offenders may live at the shelter but not be listed on New York’s Web site, which includes information only on those convicted of the most serious sex crimes.
Officials from the two schools said they sent letters to parents this week informing them that sex offenders live in the shelter in the airport’s Building Five, down the road from the terminal.
“We understand that these people, if they are convicted sex offenders, have served whatever punishment the courts see fit and have a right to rebuild their lives. We just wish it wasn’t as close to an elementary school as it is,” said Thomas Philip, headmaster of Brunswick School, which is based on Maher Avenue but has a King Street campus with about 450 students in first through eighth grades. “Putting sex offenders in that shelter that’s so close to a school – that strikes me as an unnecessary risk.”
The majority of residents in the 58-bed shelter, which opened in the mid-1980s, are not sex offenders, Deputy Westchester County Executive Larry Schwartz said. The county will close the shelter by the end of the year and replace it with a new and bigger shelter in Valhalla, N.Y., on the 200-acre County Grasslands campus, he said. The county contracts with Volunteers of America, a New York City-based non-profit group, to run the shelter, and the county Department of Social Services controls admissions, Schwartz said.
Approached at the shelter yesterday, Tina Otisi, the shelter’s program director, declined to comment. Linda McNeil, a New York City-based spokeswoman for Volunteers of America, also declined to comment, referring questions to county officials.
Schwartz said Westchester County Public Safety officials notify police departments in nearby New York and Connecticut towns about sex offenders living at the shelter, but informing private schools in Greenwich would be overstepping their jurisdiction.
“We leave it up to the local police whether they should contact people in their community,” Schwartz said. “We think they are the best judge.”
The Greenwich Police Department did not see the need to warn local schools or the public about the shelter’s criminals, said Lt. Daniel Allen, the department’s spokesman.
“If we had an offender that we felt it necessary to notify the public, we would,” Allen said. “That is not the case at this time.”
Since police are certain the offenders don’t travel to or work in Greenwich, there was no reason to alarm the public, Allen said. Connecticut state law would require sex offenders to register on the Connecticut sex offender registry if they moved or found a job in Greenwich.
“If something comes to our attention that causes us to re-evaluate and take other measures to protect the community at large, that is what we will do,” Allen said. “If they were coming into Connecticut, we might have a totally different opinion.”
First Selectman Jim Lash said he became concerned about the shelter about five months ago when a shelter resident broke into a King Street home.
“We were concerned when it’s a homeless shelter, and now that we know sex offenders are there, we are more concerned,” said Lash, who spoke with Philip this week about the schools’ concerns.
Philip said he learned of the situation on Monday from Sister Joan Magnetti, the head of Convent of the Sacred Heart, which has more than 680 girls in pre-school through 12th grade on its King Street campus. Magnetti said a parent informed her about the sex offenders’ presence after learning that Westchester County officials warned Purchase Elementary School in Purchase, N.Y. Calls to the school, one of many public schools on spring break, were not returned yesterday.
The Purchase school is located in New York state but is farther from the shelter than Brunswick and Convent of the Sacred Heart, Philip and Magnetti said.
Both school officials stressed that they understand the need to have a homeless shelter, but questioned the wisdom of housing sex offenders in one so close to the two schools.
“I think we are hoping they don’t post any more sex offenders to that facility and also that they can assure wherever they are that there is monitoring of comings and goings of the people,” Magnetti said.
State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he found out about the sex offenders from several school officials earlier this week.
“I’m very concerned that convicted sex offenders, and in fact individuals who committed fairly serious sex offenses, are within close proximity to a number of schools with young children,” said Blumenthal, a Greenwich resident. “I’ve spoken to our state police as well as to New York authorities, and we are considering what steps are necessary and appropriate to safeguard the public.”
A number of local students have visited the shelter over the years as part of community service activities. Philip said at least six years have passed since Brunswick students went there. But as recent as December, about 20 Central Middle School, Greenwich High School and Western Middle School students served dinner at the shelter for about 70 people as part of “Kindness Counts,” a community service club.
No one could say with certainty yesterday when sex offenders began living at the shelter.
Magnetti and Philip said they are scheduled to meet with Schwartz on Thursday to discuss the issue. Parents seemed pleased with their school officials’ actions but were clearly worried.
“Of course, as parents we are all extremely concerned, but we are extremely satisfied with the measures our school is taking to protect our students,” said Susan Falco of Pound Ridge, N.Y., a stay-at-home mother who presides over the Convent of the Sacred Heart Parents’ Association and has a 12th-grader at the school.
Richard Baker, a member of Brunswick’s Board of Trustees who has sons in second and fourth grades, said he was disturbed the school was not notified about the sex offenders.
“We were shocked and greatly disturbed that Westchester County would
choose to house these kind of people at this location without appropriately notifying schools and residents on the Connecticut side,” said the town resident, who works as a real estate developer.
Lisa Wysocki said she was shocked when she learned sex offenders lived within walking distance of her 7-year-old son’s Brunswick School.
“How bad are we all going to feel if a little boy 7 years old gets dragged off in the woods?” she said. “I’m not saying they need to get the death penalty, but do they need to be a half-mile from the school? . . . Would you have your Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a bar, would you have your Gamblers Anonymous meeting at a racetrack?”
It seemed yesterday that not even all of the shelter residents were aware sex offenders were living among them. Paul Weaber Jr. who said he is from Saginaw, Mich., and moved to the shelter after running out of money while searching for his two grown sons in Westchester County, said he was not aware that sex offenders were living alongside him.
Some town residents who live near the shelter also expressed concern when told of the news.
Robert Haddow, who lives just off King Street in Greenwich, said he will be more careful when his grandchildren visit him in the summer.
“I can appreciate that people with children would have a concern,” he said, but added, “If the law says that they can live there, well. . .”
Andy Dedekam, who lives on King Street in Greenwich across from the Belle Fair development in Rye Brook, said he did not know there were sex offenders living at the shelter. He has one daughter in high school, another daughter in college and a son in middle school.
“It seems like New York has not a lot of – I don’t want to say New York has not a lot of respect for Connecticut, but we don’t get a lot of information from New York,” he said. “I live across the street from New York, and there’s a lot of things going on there that I don’t know about.”
For instance, he said, when Belle Fair was being planned, no one informed him that the driveway to the development would be across the street from his house. Now that he knows there are sex offenders at the airport shelter, he said, he will probably “have more concern about people walking up and down the road.”
Schwartz said sex offenders are often homeless when released from prison and have nowhere to go but a shelter.
“Let’s look at the logic,” he said. “If they are in the shelter, at least you know where they are. Remember, they could move in next door to you in Greenwich.”