There are more than 800,000 people listed on sex offender registries in the United States today. These kinds of registries have been a primary tool in the government’s efforts to prevent sex crimes. Rather than debating whether or not they have been effective in guarding public safety, this lesson asks students to look at the impact of such registries and related policies on democracy and the rule of law.
Society’s view of sex crimes, and the policies created around them, is based on a complicated set of beliefs about safety, morality, virtue, childhood innocence and traditional gender roles. Because most people convicted of committing sex offenses eventually return to communities, there is a compelling public interest in management and treatment strategies that lead to successful reintegration. How far can those strategies stretch before they weaken legal protections for everyone?
In this lesson, students will take a position on the constitutionality of laws and policies that monitor and manage people with sex offense convictions in the United States. The lesson also offers an option for students to explore their own use of smartphones, computers and other devices and examine when things that are shared with friends cross the line and become sex crimes.
Video clips provided with this lesson are from the documentary Pervert Park. This film takes viewers inside a residential center in a Florida mobile home park that is run by and for those who have committed sex offenses, served their sentences and been released from prison.
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90 minutes (easily divided into 2 class periods) plus homework. Additional class time will be required for debate presentations. Time needed will depend on the number of students involved.
Students will prepare a debate position (presented orally, in writing or in a multimedia format) on the legality of restrictions placed on individuals who have been convicted of committing sex offenses and have completed their sentences.
- Film clips from Pervert Park and equipment on which to show them
- Internet access for research
- Pervert Park discussion guide, available to download at www.pbs.org/pov/pervertpark/
Step 1 — Preparation
In preparation for the lesson, download the Pervert Park discussion guide for contextualization of the issues presented in the film. The guide also includes suggested action steps and a list of websites, organizations and reports that may serve as helpful resources.
Step 2 — Introduction
Begin the lesson by asking students what they know about sex offender registries. Do they know who must register and what information they must provide? Why do they think such registries were implemented?
After students have shared a few of their ideas, segue to the film clips by letting students know that for the next couple of days they are going to examine how the law treats sex crimes and whether current practices set legal precedents that could affect everyone (not just those who have been convicted of sex crimes). Students will be asked to come to their own conclusions about whether residency restrictions and lifetime registration are constitutional and then advocate for their positions, either in persuasive essays, oral debates or multimedia presentations. Let students choose their preferred formats, or assign a particular format that supports your curriculum goals. Advanced students might also be asked to look at whether post-incarceration requirements are effective.
To help students begin their research, tell them that you’re going to show clips from a documentary film called Pervert Park. If time allows, you might solicit a few reactions to the title, including guesses about the content of the film (the title refers to the nickname given to the park by locals). If not, just summarize the film’s content, noting that it features people who have committed sex crimes, served time and been released. Because there are restrictions about where they are permitted to live, they have created their own small community, where they are under court supervision and receive counseling and peer support. In the clips, students will hear about the program that runs the community, as well as a few of the residents’ stories.
You may also want to remind students that this lesson isn’t about Facebook-style determinations of whether they like/dislike, sympathize with/reject or forgive/condemn people who have committed sex offenses. It’s about how the way we treat them affects everyone and everyone’s legal rights and the strength of the U.S. Constitution.
Step 3 — View and Discuss Clip 1
To help focus students’ attention, ask them to listen/watch for the following as the clip plays: What specific crimes were committed? What were the restrictions imposed on the residents? What do you think are some of the benefits and drawbacks of those restrictions? Why do you think these policies were developed? What is their purpose? Play Clip 1 and discuss the viewing focus questions. If needed, prompt students to take note of the following:
- Electronic monitoring
- Sex offender registry and app for public search
- James’ story and the notion that he was “entrapped”
- Trustworthiness of Craig’s List
- The counselor’s point about James’ immaturity
- Going online to satisfy a need for attention
Eventually bring the discussion around to James’ story. Do students buy James’ explanation that he was entrapped? What do you think would have happened had James been talking to an actual mother of a 14-year-old? What are the benefits or drawbacks of law enforcement using undercover strategies? How would students define the limits of online sex-related behavior? Is a girl who sends a topless photo to her boyfriend’s phone guilty of a sex crime? How about an ex who sends a private nude photo to the entire school as revenge? Or an 18-year-old senior who has phone sex with a 16-year-old girlfriend? Or a 15-year-old who shares a porn video found online with a group of friends? Should those convicted of committing sex offenses like James’ be required to register as sex offenders forever? Why or why not?
OPTIONAL: Because nearly all students use digital devices, you may want to add a “detour” to the lesson to explore what is legal and what is illegal to share or do online. Ask students where they might look online to find out what their state law says about the types of online (phone or computer) acts that would result in convictions for sex offenses. As a class, develop a list of credible sites. Then have students research the laws in your state. As time allows, discuss the results, especially if any results are surprising. Did students encounter anything they think shouldn’t be a crime but is or vice versa?
Step 4 — View and Discuss Clip 2
Continue the research process by playing Clip 2. As before, play the clip and discuss the viewing focus questions:
- What specific crimes were committed?
- What were the restrictions imposed on the residents?
- What do you think are some of the benefits and drawbacks of those restrictions?
- Why do you think these policies were developed? What is their purpose?
If needed, prompt students to note and think about the implications of the following:
- The tools that were used to stop park residents from repeating their abusive behaviors.
- Bill’s remark about his monitoring requirements being “silly.”
- The consequences of labeling someone a “sex offender.”
- A large list of acts can qualify as sex offenses (they aren’t all violent).
- Every person seen on screen is listed in a sex offender registry. Could you tell by looking?
- Severed ties with family and friends can make it impossible to return home after release from prison.
- It can be very difficult for those convicted of sex offenses to find jobs, and it is therefore easy for them to be exploited by employers.
- Those on sex offender registries are often under threat from vigilantes, and harassment is common.
- Bill was abused as child, which he connects to his own abusive behavior pattern.
Now that students have seen the human side of policies governing those who have committed sex offenses, they are ready to research and defend positions on those policies.
Step 5 — “Debate” Assignments
For the statements below (use as many or as few as you wish), assign each student to argue pro or con or to be a judge. Judges need to know the legal issues so they can evaluate pro and con arguments. For each assigned topic, be sure that all three roles are filled. It is fine to have more than one student assigned to each role.
- Americans have the right to live where they choose. Residence restrictions on those who have committed sexual offenses and have completed their sentences are unconstitutional.
- Prison terms are not enough to keep the public safe from people who have been convicted of sex crimes. They should be restricted further, even after they have served their sentences.
- Sex offender registries should be reserved for those who commit violent offenses. It should not include everyone who has ever been convicted of any sex-related crime.
- The sex offender registry requirement should be lifelong. Those who have been convicted of sex crimes should not have the option to apply to have their names removed from a registry, even if they have not offended again and regardless of the nature of their original crimes, their age or how much time has passed.
- Sexting or digitally sharing explicit photos between boyfriends and girlfriends should be classified as a sex crime, especially if one party is a legal adult (age 18 or older) and the other is a minor (under age 18).
- Sharing explicit images of someone without their permission should be a crime, but it should not be classified and punished as a sex crime.
You and your students can also create your own topics, especially if events have occurred at your school or in your community that are important to address.
Ask students to research their topics and prepare written summaries on them, including the major evidence that supports their arguments. Remind the students representing pro and con positions that the focus is on constitutional/legal issues and how precedents created by current practices might affect groups other than those listed in a sex offender registry. This is not an argument about whether to pardon people who have been convicted of sex crimes. Pro and con students should also prepare four-minute (maximum) oral debates or multimedia presentations. Judges should write summaries of the main issues and also be prepared to explain their final decisions orally once they have heard arguments.
To get students started on research, visit the Resources for Research section below and/or have them read the Pervert Park discussion guide (www.pbs.org/pov/pervertpark/discussion-guide.php), paying special attention to the Background and Resources sections.
Step 6 — Presentations Structure
the presentations more like a court session than a debate. The judges will collectively hear all the cases and take notes as they go. After all presentations, the judges will convene to discuss their decisions. When they finish, each one will be responsible for explaining orally the decision on the topic that judge was originally assigned.
Pro and con students should take turns presenting. You (or your designee) should serve as the timekeeper. As is the practice in the U.S. Supreme Court, stop presenters at the time limit, whether they have finished or not. Leave a couple of minutes after each presentation for questions from the judges.
Wrap up the lesson with a five-minute free-write (or a pair and share) during which students reflect on what they’ve learned about how giving rights to one group or taking rights away from one group can affect the rights enjoyed by all.