Rockford Superintendent angry over proximity of offender, school
by BETH ALTENA
Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler had harsh words to say about Plainfield Township officials’ failure to notify him that a convicted sex offender was working practically within arm’s reach of elementary students.
Forty-year-old Jeffrey Hawkins was fired from his job as firefighter and deputy clerk for the township after a Friday, November 6, incident when the convicted sex offender was accused of soliciting a teenage boy on the Internet for immoral purposes. Hawkins allegedly used Facebook to contact the youngster.
Hawkins had been convicted in 1997 of criminal sexual conduct with a 12-year-old family member.
In a letter to the media released November 10, Plainfield Fire Chief Dave Peterson stated, “At the time of his prior conviction, steps were taken to limit or eliminate the possibility of him being alone with a minor child. At the time of his prior conviction, considerations for continued employment were taken concerning the employment record and attitude of Mr. Hawkins, the family members who were involved, and the recommendation of his mental health professional. Based on that information I felt that with proper safeguards his continued employment with the fire department did not constitute a threat to the public.”
Chief Peterson said the latest investigation was the result of activities outside his position as a firefighter but nonetheless reason for termination. He also said the township personnel are deeply concerned for the victims and family members involved in this unfortunate incident. He fired Hawkins effective November 10.
In 2000, Hawkins was appointed as deputy clerk for the township.
Shibler sent a letter to the township, backed by similar sentiments from Northview and Comstock Park schools. Shibler’s letter informed Supervisor George Meek that no field trips will be allowed to the Plainfield Charter Township until a sex offender policy is implemented. “As I am sure you can appreciate, one of the most important duties I have as superintendent of schools, is to ensure the safety and security of the children entrusted to our district,” he stated in the letter.
Shibler also questioned whether the township broke the law by allowing Hawkins to work within 1,000 feet of a school. “The law is very clear that a sex offender cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school,” Shibler said.
Belmont Elementary School is located right next to the Belmont Plainfield Fire Station, and Plainfield Township Hall is located next to that, at 6161 Belmont Avenue.
“I should at least have been notified. That’s a concern and I should be concerned,” Shibler stated. “The bottom line is that he was convicted in his first offense in 1997.”
Shibler said his concern was the safety not only of students who may attend field trips to the station, but also those who may come into contact with Hawkins as his duties as an emergency medical service provider.
“We ask all volunteers, not just employees, but also all volunteers at Rockford Public Schools to undergo a background check. We would never hire anyone who was convicted of a sex offense,” Shibler said. “It’s just common sense for anyone who comes in contact with a school.”
Following Hawkins’ arrest on the second count of criminal sexual conduct, for using a computer to commit a crime, and for being a second offender in criminal sexual conduct, Plainfield Township Clerk Scott Harvey, who has been with the township one year, fired Hawkins as deputy clerk. He stated that he had no idea Hawkins had a prior sexual offense conviction and was on the Michigan Sexual Offender Registry. According to Harvey, there was nothing in Hawkins’ township personnel file indicating the conviction or that he was on the sex offender registry.
Plainfield Township Manager Robert Homan said shortly after Hawkins’ arrest that the township has no policy regarding background checks or hiring or employment policy for those with a criminal background. At the November 16 regular township board meeting, Harvey told the board that he had implemented a criminal history policy for his department until the township adopts a policy regarding background checks for employees and potential employees.
At this same meeting, Supervisor Meek opened the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting. “The board will not answer any questions for the benefit of Jeff and his family until there is a final decision in the case,” Meek said. “We will take your comments and we will record your comments, and if there is a question in those comments, we will get back to you, but it is not going to be tonight.”
Jan Lastocey stated that the fire chief did not have the right to hide this information from parents of children.
Stacey Komack stated that she is a mother of four, three of which attend Belmont Elementary School. “What did you know, when did you know it, and what did you do about it?” she asked.
Shibler said he has no intention of contacting other townships that do not have a criminal background check in place for potential employees and stop fire department field trips. “This is dealing directly with a specific situation and a specific employee and an employee right next door to an elementary school,” he said. “We certainly will continue to have field trips.” He said that none of the district’s other eight elementary schools is so close to a fire department.