COVINGTON - A bill prohibiting sex offenders from serving on local boards of education overwhelmingly passed the Georgia House on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 14, sponsored by State Sen. John Douglas, R-Social Circle, amends state law to prohibit anyone on the national or state sex offender registries from being elected to a board of education. State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, introduced the bill in the House, where it passed by a vote of 161-1.
The bill had already cleared the Senate and now goes to Gov. Sonny Perdue to be signed into law.
Douglas, a former member of the Newton County Board of Education, was motivated to introduce the legislation after learning that a local candidate had been convicted of a sex crime.
Horace Don Gresham, who ran for the Board of Education District 2 seat in 2008, was convicted of sodomy with a child under the age of 14 in DeKalb County in 1998.
Because his crime occurred before the sex offender registry was created, Gresham is not on the list. Douglas said that such cases cannot be grandfathered into the law, but he is trying to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.
Gresham was also charged with public indecency in Newton County in 1999. He admitted his guilt and voluntarily completed a diversion program in order to avoid prosecution.
"Last year, I vowed that the first bill I would introduce in the 2009 legislative session would be to prevent a situation like this from happening again. I have delivered on that promise," Douglas said in a prepared statement. "The idea that a pedophile can be a member of a local school board and have unrestricted access to schools cannot be tolerated. Working with Rep. Doug Holt, we now have made sure that won't happen in Newton County or in Georgia."
Georgia Election Law states that at least 10 years must have elapsed from the date of completion of a sentence for conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude and qualification to run for elective office.
However, "Once someone is on the (sex offender) list, there are no provisions in Georgia law for removing their name unless a judge orders them removed from the list for some extenuating circumstance," Douglas said. "The end result is this bill would in virtually every case permanently bar someone on the list from running for a board of education seat."
According to Lt. Gwen Hightower, who maintains the sex offender registry at the Newton County Sheriff's Office, sex offenders remain on the registry for life, but may be removed 10 years after completion of their sentence if they petition the Superior Court and are found not to pose any further threat.
Some offenders, such as those convicted of a misdemeanor sex crime, are not required to register, according to the Georgia Code.
According to court documents, Gresham was convicted in May 1998; his sentence included one year in prison and 11 years on probation, meaning he is not eligible to seek elective office until 2010.
Three residents of District 2 challenged Gresham's eligibility during his school board run, and he withdrew from the race just prior to a hearing before the Newton County Board of Elections.
Gresham promised to run for the District 2 Board of Commissioners seat in 2010.
Senate Bill 14 addresses only candidates for board of education seats.
"We're doing a laser instead of a shotgun blast here - we'll concentrate on where the kids are," Douglas said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.