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Sex abuse risk to be assessed;School Management

The Borders is pioneering measures to deal with ex-offenders who may be a threat to children, says Seonag MacKinnon

The spectre of Big Mags, the notorious Stirling matriarch who led the charge to hound out a convicted paedophile from his lodgings last year, will not be a worry to education officers in the Scottish Borders. The authority has set up pioneering measures to deal with the release of such offenders into the community.

Instead of just police and social workers making crucial decisions, assistant director of education Kenneth Paterson now has partial responsibility as part of a rapid action Scrutiny Panel. He will have a direct say in discussions to help prevent anyone who is identified as a potential threat to children being accommodated near a school or playing field.

Paterson believes schools will see the move as a positive development. Up and down the country agencies such as housing departments have come under attack for meeting their statutory duty to house a newly released offender without fully taking into account the wider picture of child welfare and community safety.

"I think teachers will welcome the fact that a strategy exists," says Paterson. "Sometimes heads have come to tell me of a concern because parents have conveyed their concerns, and it was the first I heard of the problem."

The new Scrutiny Panel, which is likely to be a blueprint for many local authorities, will number just four people. This will allow it to meet with relative ease in emergency session at short notice and will restrict exchange of sensitive information to a limited number. Panel members, who will come from the police, social work, housing and education, will be able to discuss the case more fully without fear of breaching the data protection law.

Under the Sex Offenders Act, information will only be released to the social work department by the police, and only in extreme circumstances where a particular individual is perceived to be a threat to another individual. Schools will not, therefore, be routinely in the communication loop, says Paterson. "The new measures don't necessarily mean that we will go round to the headteacher to tell him or her. If there is a feeling among all involved that a person no longer poses a threat, then there is no point worrying them unnecessarily."

He accepts, however, that he may have a dilemma occasionally about whether to tell a headteacher. "It's all about risk assessment in the end."

Paterson maintains that withholding information from heads and others is not the major issue it sounds, since research indicates that only 5 per cent of offences ever result in a conviction. The real number ofsex crimes may be 240 a year inthe Borders, so there is little use in being able to identify the tiny percentage who have been in prison. Doing so may encourage a false sense of security. Constant vigilance is the only real protection for children.

Philip Gibson, the council's head of service for family and for criminal justice, who is one of the driving forces behind the scheme, assures schools: "We get advance notice of release and the Scrutiny Panel will click into place to take responsible action. I think teachers will welcome the fact that we will have a really firm grip on situations."

Officials hope that the new panel will help prevent a repeat of tragedies such as the murder in Aberdeen last year of schoolboy Scott Simpson by convicted paedophile Steven Leisk,known to the police and social services.

"The arrangement doesn't guarantee that such a thing couldn't happen here, but we can make it as difficult as possible by putting up many more hurdles to jump," says Gibson.

As well as the planned Scrutiny Panel, the Borders offers teachers, parents and the wider community the security of closer supervision of sex offenders than is required by national guidelines. Offenders who are often clever manipulators are visited in their accommodation and have to come for interview to the social work department more frequently than in most other authorities.

Gibson says: "The panel may well say to an offender, no, you will not go back to live where you used to. Certainly, it is a move back towards a more coherent view of the sensitivities of the community, the collective right of citizens to live in peace."

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