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Class worked to break the cycle of sex offenses

The criminal justice majors in Shelly Clevenger’s course studying sex offenses are usually prepared for a final project that is out-of-the-ordinary.

Shelly Clevenger

“I’ve had a lot of these same students in my other classes, so they know their projects will be a little quirky,” said Clevenger, whose innovative teaching has been honored by the American Society of Criminology. “I wanted something that will help them communicate with their audience.” For the future members of law enforcement, that means connecting not only with those who are vulnerable to sexual offenses, but also those who have committed them.

Clevenger split the class into three groups, and charged them with creating resources for their audiences. One group designed a comic book to help homeless children avoid online predators. Another created a brochure to help parents of children with developmental disabilities work with their children on online safety. The third compiled a pamphlet of employment resources for past sexual offenders.

We saw that in order to prevent the re-victimization and recidivism, we have to provide support and services…or else there is nothing left but for them to re-offend. — Student Keeley Kolis

The groups needed to do more than research and theory. Each group went into the community and gathered input and presented ideas to the audience. Those working with the comic book worked with Home Sweet Home Mission to understand how children are getting online. “Just because someone is homeless, does not mean that they do not spend time somewhere with access to computers or cell phones,” said Chris Hall, a senior from Aurora, Illinois. “We wanted to know the media sources these children have, and saw they have computers at the mission and at school.”

Publications for prevention
Hall’s group designed the comic book to create awareness of online predators, and the actions children can take if contacted. “We used simple sentence structure, and tried to frame it in a way that kids would understand,” said fellow group member Drew Kopfman, a senior from Crystal Lake, Illinois. “We repeated a lot of phrases, as well as the steps to contact an adult, or someone a child trusts.”

Students working on the brochure met with parents at Marcfirst, a local not-for-profit that assists people with disabilities. The brochure provides a guide to help parents monitor the sites their children visit. “We reminded the parents that we were giving them the power to see what their kids do online,” said Nick Johnson, a senior from Naperville, Illinois.

When speaking with the parents, the group quickly realized they needed to go beyond informing, and add an element of reassurance. “You could tell they were a little overwhelmed at first,” said Johnson, “but after we told them we were not trying to scare them, you could see them relax.”

Keeley Kolis, a senior from Springfield, Illinois, said the parents needed to understand that children with developmental disabilities are more vulnerable to online predators, “but at the same time, we did not want to make the Internet seem like a super-scary place where everyone would be victimized,” she said.

Preventing repeat offenders
The last group met at the McLean County Law & Justice Center to speak with a court-mandated session for sex offenders. Their goal was to provide a list of employment resources for those who had been convicted. “We didn’t want to look at them and say, ‘Just go get a job at Walmart,’” said Abby Marmion, a senior from Geneseo, Illinois. “We wanted a variety of possibilities, and to make it meaningful employment.”

The group did not know the offenses of the group, or their interests. “We spent a lot of time researching before we started, just so we could provide a variety of jobs,” said Alena Harm, a senior from Oak Forest who is double-majoring in criminal justice and psychology. “So we looked at a lot of different websites, including job sites that are specifically geared toward those who had a felony.”

The group created a pamphlet broken into possible fields, including retail, hospitality, and restaurants. When presenting the pamphlet at the meeting, the group also added tips for resumes and job interviewing. “Some of those people were really young, and may not have been on an interview before,” said Harm.

The experience of creating the resources did more than connect students to possible avenues of help. Many said it offered them a chance to interact with people before they enter law enforcement. “I want to work with sex offenders, so it was good to be able to sit down and speak with these people as a group,” said Destini Davis, a senior from Homer Glen, Illinois. “It’s getting them beyond the idea that it is me against you, but that I’m here to help.”

Harm noted the class was her first in working directly with offenders. “Our major is really reactionary as far as victims are concerned,” she said. “This was a way to try and intervene to prevent offenses. I don’t think I’ve ever had that in other criminal justice classes.”

These projects enforced the goal of the class, said Kolis, as well as the overall purpose of her chosen profession. “Not only it is important to educate the potential victims, but we saw that in order to prevent the re-victimization and recidivism, we have to provide support and services for our offenders, or else there is nothing left but for them to re-offend,” she said.