Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should Parents Reveal That a Father at Their Child’s School Is a Sex Offender?

March 20, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should Parents Reveal That a Father at Their Child’s School Is a Sex Offender?”


My daughter goes to a public elementary school. Recently, one of the parents in our class discovered that a fellow parent, the father of a girl in my daughter’s class, was arrested in an undercover police operation for soliciting an underage female prostitute. Details of the undercover operation were posted online. He agreed to pay for sex with the underage prostitute, who would come to his house while his young children were asleep and his wife was away at work. He confessed to the crime but is not on the county’s searchable online database of sex offenders. While the principal of our school was alerted by another parent and met with the man and his wife (they are still married), information was not passed on to other parents because he is considered at low risk to reoffend. He does not volunteer at the school, at the request of the principal.

Our daughter won’t be allowed to go over to their house under any circumstances, but we would welcome his daughter over to our house. The dilemma is whether to tell other parents so that they can make an informed choice about whether to allow their kids to play at this man’s house. Had he solicited a prostitute who wasn’t a minor, we wouldn’t care (that is an issue for him and his wife), but because he solicited an underage prostitute, it feels like a matter of public safety. We don’t want to stigmatize their kids, but as a parent I would want to know about this situation. Should we tell other parents or not? Name Withheld

My response: If the details were posted online, the information is public. I don’t see how anyone can stop you from sharing public information.

More relevant, though, is that another parent besides you found the information. That parent already shared the information with you. You can rest assured that person will share the information whether you do or not. They already did to you.

You can rest assured you will hear this information from other parents so your question, while interesting, is moot.

The New York Times response:

I’m supposing that the online report — as well as the principal’s decision and the father’s acceptance of it — leaves little room for doubt that these events occurred. But that doesn’t settle the question of what sort of threat he poses. Solicitation of sex with a minor is a felony in many states but only sometimes results in prison time or placement on a searchable sex-offender registry. In some states, inclusion in these public databases is at the discretion of officials, who are supposed to make a judgment of risk. (Officials do keep registries that are less readily accessible.) If we trusted the justice system, we’d be reassured by their apparent decision that he poses no serious threat. Bear in mind that most sex offenders are not found to reoffend. (Also, for what it’s worth, research suggests that public registration has little or no effect on recidivism.) But you fear the worst, which is why you’ve resolved to keep your daughter away from him. So let’s assume you’re right.

Your concerns about stigmatizing the man’s children are thoughtful and, I suspect, well founded. Once you tell other parents, some of their children will probably hear about it. If that happens, there’s a good chance that all of them will. This will create problems for the offender’s children.

Yet it’s difficult to remain silent. You’re glad that you learned about this father’s sexual misconduct; your knowledge will affect decisions you make. Your fellow parents would naturally want to be able to make their decisions in light of this knowledge, too.

Nor are there practical alternatives that I can see. Sure, you could approach the man himself, asking him to promise not to allow other children into his house in return for your not revealing what you know. But this looks like blackmail, and besides, you would have no way of knowing whether he kept his word.

So there’s no perfect solution. If you pass the information on, you might want to do so in a conversation that takes into account the welfare of his children, which you’re alert to but others may not be. Urge other parents to do what you have done, that is, settle on a policy but don’t tell your child about it. (Though, again, the odds of containment are surely slim.) When you’re having events at your place, you might also make an effort to include the daughter who is in your kid’s class. Children inevitably bear the burden of parental sins, but we can try to mitigate their hardship.

My son is in a high-school drama class and is performing in the class play. I am the president of the theater guild, a group of parents who support the school’s theater activities. In that capacity, I supervise the printing of the posters and programs and other promotional materials for the school’s productions.

Recently, the drama teacher sent me a JPEG of the artwork to be used on the poster for the current production; it was made by one of the kids in the drama class. I designed the layout, with the artwork, and sent it off to be printed. I also had tickets printed using the art. Ordinarily, I would use the poster design for the cover of the program as well. But today my son sent me a link to a website for a community-theater group in another state, promoting its production of the same play. That website contained the very same piece of art that the student in the drama class presented as his own work. Only one detail appears to have been altered. It’s clear that the student downloaded the art, made a slight change and then offered it to the drama teacher.

The student in question is a fairly recent immigrant, and I don’t know if this particular student is documented or not. I’m concerned that if I bring this to the drama teacher’s attention, the student may get in trouble, which may be compounded by his status in this country. It also may be that he doesn’t understand the full implications of his actions (though my son says he is very smart and sophisticated, even though this may not be immediately apparent, given his poor English).

The risk to the school is slight. The original artwork is clearly amateur work by a member of a community-theater group in another state. They will probably never know and don’t stand to lose money by the plagiarism of their artwork — I doubt a copyright suit is in the offing.

My first thought is to minimize the damage by designing a new cover for the program. The posters are printed and already distributed, so it would be hard to recall those (not to mention costly for our small parent-run organization). I’ve also thought about talking to the student and asking him to confess, which may lead to lesser consequences, but I don’t really have much contact with the student.

I feel uncertain about the best way to handle this situation. Pull the student aside and tell him he should self-report? Have my son report it? Tell the teacher myself? The school’s honor code requires students to report suspected honor violations, so doing nothing is not an option. Name Withheld

My response: I feel like not that long ago a parent of one child could take some responsibility to handle issues with another, or could even talk to the other child’s parents. People didn’t expect the government to mediate every issue. It seems to me that you’re an adult and can handle the issue yourself. It’s not obvious that a teacher, for having a job in a school, can handle it better.

It seems to me that if you talk to the other child’s parents you can give them the chance to have their child redo the art. They know their documentation status, the risks of not redoing the poster or getting permission to use the original work, and so on. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m sure that if the kid and his parents took responsibility to fix the problem, even if the case came to court, no jury would convict the child. It might be allowed under fair use. What you consider the original may have been derived from some other work. It’s not even obvious there’s a crime.

The New York Times response:

Here we’ve got a lesser school drama but a knotty one all the same. You’re a decent soul, and you’re worried that this boy may be penalized too severely for an infraction he may not fully understand. Many people take materials from the Internet without thinking they’re doing something wrong. Given the nature of bureaucracies, you’ve concluded that you can’t escape responsibility for what happens by simply putting the matter in the hands of the school authorities. That said, you may be overstating the additional risks for an undocumented child; I don’t see that any of this would come to the attention of immigration officials.

The fact is that while you surely know the drama teacher, you don’t really know the boy or understand his motives. Can you remedy this? Letting things lie probably isn’t an option here. There’s a good chance that other kids will discover what your son discovered — in which case, this boy is eventually going to have to explain what happened anyway.

I agree that the harm to the person whose artwork was copied is de minimis. But you don’t want to use someone else’s work uncredited. So here’s a suggestion. Talk to the boy, explain why what he did was wrong and tell him he should contact the artwork’s creator to seek his or her permission. If you get permission, you can then put a credit in the program. (If not, change the art.) Tell the boy to let the drama teacher know what happened. If he doesn’t, you’re going to have to decide whether you trust the teacher and the school to treat him fairly.

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about the honor code. In my view, honor codes that require everyone to report on violations are a bad idea. And not just because they don’t work. Schoolmates are naturally held together by norms of loyalty that entail that snitching is shameful. To require snitching, on the pain of penalty, simply pits one set of honor norms — those of group loyalty — against another. There’s not a lot of honor in that.

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