Offenders not a factor when school system creates bus routes

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Hundreds of registered Knox County sex offenders, including those convicted of molesting, raping and abusing minors, live in areas that parents say is dangerously close to where their children congregate: school bus stops.

"It's disturbing," said Stephen Buie, whose son attends fourth grade at Spring Hill Elementary. "It's disturbing to know that there's pedophiles (that close to) children."

A WBIR 10News investigation found that of the county's almost 600 known sex offenders, roughly 260 of them live within 1,000 feet of the stops, and many live within walking distance of multiple ones. State law, however, only restricts sex offenders whose victims were minors from knowingly living or working within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks or playgrounds.

Tennessee, unlike some other Southeastern states, does not require a buffer zone between sex offenders and bus stops. And local school officials, who oversee a district of some 57,700 students, say they don't even chart where sex offenders live when creating bus routes and schedules each year.

"It's almost impossible to separate the two," said Knox County Schools Chief of Security Gus Paidousis, noting that the district has a combined 10,000 morning and afternoon stops.

He said the Knoxville Police Department years ago attempted to distance bus stops from sex offenders but "it physically, logistically wasn't possible to do."

That means, he said, parents must help keep a closer eye on their children.

"I think any time that child leaves home and they go to that bus stop, ultimately, fundamentally, it's that parental role that helps protect that child, just like the school system tries to protect that child once they're in the school and once they're on the bus," he added.

Parents agree, but they still want changes.

"I had no idea how close they were," said Joy Taylor, whose son attends Whittle Springs Middle School in North Knoxville. "I'm shocked, and saddened, and scared for the kids in this neighborhood."

At least eight registered sex offenders live within 1,000 feet, or roughly three football fields, from the E. Caldwell Avenue bus stop where her son waits each morning.

"(That's) too close for comfort, as far as I'm concerned, and something needs to be done," she said.

FULL SCREEN: Map showing Knox County bus stops near sex offenders

A Closer Look

The 10News analysis compared the primary address that sex offenders registered with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations and mapped them with the bus stop locations provided by the Knox County School System.

Roughly 260 sex offenders live within 1,000 feet of the bus stops, and in a number cases eight to 10 registered offenders are clustered around a single bus stop. Some offenders, including those who pleaded guilty to child rape, lived within only several hundred feet of the bus stops.

The pattern repeats itself throughout the county, although clusters were more prevalent in the North and smaller in the West, according to the analysis.

"I don't want to let my kids out now," said Amanda Buhl, when told that two sex offenders – one who pleaded guilty to exploitation of a minor by electronic means and another who pleaded guilty to child molestation – live within 1,000 feet of her children's bus stop on El Prado Drive, just west of Northshore Town Center.

TBI: List of registered Knox County sex offenders

BOE: Bus schedules and routes

BOE: Bus stop locator

Buhl, who has two children in elementary school and another at West Valley Middle School, said she lives in what she considers a safe neighborhood where the children typically play outside by themselves.

She suggested to WBIR that the school system should relocate her children's bus stop.

"They (should) fix it to where they're not allowed to be that close to where (students) catch the bus and where kids are in general," she said.

Buie agreed.

"It's something we need to focus on as a community and be aware that our children are safe, and to talk to our children and make sure nobody's out there hurting them or exploiting them," he said.

Knox County school officials said they don't recall any incidents in which sex offenders have approached students at bus stops, but they're willing to look at the routes if parents reach out to them.

"I feel confident saying that if we had a bus stop that was in a dangerous spot for whatever the source of danger was, that we would absolutely listen to different strategies to see where we could move that bus stop to improve those children's safety," Paidousis said.

A National Concern

At this point sex offenders are not a factor when officials survey bus routes. Instead, officials look at distances, traffic patterns, curves, and blind hills.

According to the Knox County School Bus Handbooks, the routes are set to "travel the shortest possible distance from the time the first student is picked up until the trip is complete."

Elementary bus stops are no closer than ¼ mile apart, and middle and high school routes are no closer than ½ mile.

Elementary students who live within one mile from schools, and middle and high school students who live within 1.5 miles are not eligible for county-provided transportation services.

Other places do take sex offender locations into consideration when putting together routes.

For example, Georgia restricts sex offenders whose offense was committed on and after July 1, 2006 from residing within 1,000 feet of where "minors congregate," which includes school bus stops.

Florida places similar restrictions on some sex offenders, although many cities extend the distance to 2,500 feet. However, since October 2004, school districts there cannot relocate or create new bus stops within 1,000 feet of where registered sex offenders live.

Further, some regional school districts that don't have state-imposed guidelines that regulate the proximity of sex offenders and bus stops still factor in a sex offender's address when scheduling routes.

In Louisville, Ky., for example, upset parents last year convinced school leaders to relocate several stops after they discovered sex offenders living nearby them.

And in Horry County, S.C., Director of Transportation Jim Wright told 10News that he personally monitors the state's sex offender registry and uses it when he plans routes for the system's 40,000-student district.

"Nothing is more important than a child, and that has to override any policy of regulation," he said. "You have to take care of the kids first."

Wright, a 29-year school district veteran, said he's moved 30 stops in the past four years, adding that prior to the start of each school year he also makes adjustments.

He said that officials across the country also should revisit other guidelines.

"A lot of the rules that transportation uses nationally have been around 50 years, so it might be time to relook at the rules," he said. "Certain distance rules, like a fourth of a mile (which Knox County uses for elementary schools) – that's a long way for a 4-year-old to be walking at 6 a.m. in the dark."

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