— Troy Turner —
The Daily Times Editor
Judging by the diverse and very emotional response, sexual violence is a bigger problem in our community than what many of us might have imagined.
The recent stories of two local football players linked to sex offenses with victims the age of 13 and 5 prompted hundreds of letters, calls, e-mails and poll votes to this newspaper, and sadly, many of them came because of personal experience with the issue.
Many women, and men, living in our community are either victims themselves, or the relatives or friends of victims.
To them, there are no second thoughts whatsoever about supporting a law, no matter how it is written, that defends potential victims from having to suffer the horrible violations others already have experienced.
That is why there is a fast-growing snowball of support for a move under way now to seek a new state law that requires authorities to notify schools when a youthful sex offender might be on their enrollment. It also would allow schools other options for educating already-convicted sex offenders so that they are not allowed back into the schools with other students and potential victims.
A growing snowball
Lt. Gov. Diane Denish was in town last week, and she graciously planned a visit with The Daily Times editorial board.
She very much was aware of the local stories about the player-rape cases we had reported, so she was ready with an answer when I asked her about her opinion on the matter and whether she would be willing to help support a new state law.
Her immediate answer was yes.
"I would support it," she said. "I think that would be well-received."
Landing the lieutenant governor's support of a proposed new state law is an important endorsement, as it is the lieutenant governor who presides over the state senate and who carries much influence on when and how proposed legislation is introduced.
Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, is on record for being willing to sponsor the bill and introduce it in the Legislature.
Aztec schools superintendent Linda Paul is helping to draft the proposal and is helping to promote it statewide, using her dual position as this year's president of the state school superintendents association.
The Daily Times is solidly behind the move and trying to get the proposal attention with a steady stream of editorial support and by sharing information and interviews with media statewide. It also is calling for expansion of the proposal to include more emphasis on notification to schools and not just policy regarding education of convicted offenders.
But the real people behind the push for such new legislation are the victims and their families, such as Mike Colson, whose 5-year-old granddaughter was raped.
"I don't want to see anyone go through what we went through," Colson said.
It was bad enough when the crime occurred, followed by the painful legal proceedings in which a 16-year-old football player was convicted, he said. But, it didn't end there.
"I got a call one day from a buddy of mine, and he said, you're never going to believe who is back out here on the football field,'" he recalled. "I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it."
The player later was expelled from school, but only after senior school officials learned of his conviction months later after the incident.
Since then, Colson has committed himself, almost as a form of recovery therapy, to the cause of trying to prevent other convicted rapists from returning to the school halls where Colson feels other children are at risk.
Lending a voice
Linda Paul also is one of the heroes in all this, although she quickly points out that other Aztec school administrators equally are involved in trying to find answers.
"We're trying to solve the problem of, how do we fix the system when we have a convicted sex offender?" she said. "We have an obligation to educate them, but can we serve them in another setting so we don't have to have them in a public high school?"
All options are being explored, she said, and she emphasizes that it is a statewide problem.
New legislation "would protect children throughout the state, not just in San Juan County," she said.
Adult sex offenders are required to register as sex offenders. She and many others would like to see the same for juvenile offenders. Today, there is nothing to warn schools, or anyone else for that matter. "So the public doesn't even know" when youth offenders are around other children.
Paul and Colson plan to spend time together campaigning for new legislation and supporting Sen. Neville when the next legislative session begins in Santa Fe on Jan. 16. The Daily Times will be there as well.
Other voices, however, immediately began crying out for the law in a much more personal way once the loopholes were realized.
The first 500 respondents to a Daily Times poll on daily-times.com voted in a 9-to-1 majority in support of a notification law, with 92 percent voting yes.
Dozens of emotional personal letters and e-mails also were submitted, including one from Morgan Curtis, who grew up in Farmington but now works in the field of sexual violence prevention in Austin, Texas.
"Keeping the silence ... implicitly shows support for the perpetrator and leads to a climate that is unsafe and unsupportive for the victim/survivors of sexual violence," he wrote. "We have so many obstacles in the movement to end sexual violence, many of which are evident in the reactions individuals have had to the Daily Times articles and your column (The Rape of a Community').
"It is vital to continue pointing out that perpetrators make the decision to commit sexual violence and that victims are in no way responsible. ...
"We must continue to work to change these norms and not remain silent about this issue."
No more silence.
And that should include no keeping secret from our schools when the fact is, there are known sex offenders roaming the halls.
End the silence.
Troy Turner is the editor of The Daily Times. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 450, Farmington, N.M. 87499; or at firstname.lastname@example.org.