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Messages of child safety worth repeating

It was the stuff of nightmares, true-crime novels and news flashes from faraway cities.

But it happened right here: A Tuolumne County sheriff's deputy stopped a van without a license plate in front of Jamestown School just before classes ended on a Friday. The 44-year-old driver turned out to be a convicted child molester on California's Megan's Law list.

He was dressed in a black-and-red marching band uniform, but his van wasn't loaded with tubas, trumpets and snare drums. Instead toys, stuffed animals and a tape of the movie "Cinderella" were in back. Except that "Cinderella" turned out to be a pornographic movie.

District Attorney Donald Segerstrom allowed that the suspect's "weirdness factor" was high. Others might call him creepy, disgusting, or worse.

After questioning, the man was arrested and booked into jail on suspicion of failing to register as a sex offender and of attempting to molest or annoy children.

But the story was not over.

In an unwelcome postscript that angered many, charges were never filed against the suspect and he was released last Monday. Others were upset that the Sheriff's Office waited nearly three days to notify the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office of the Jamestown incident and furnish a description of the man detained.

Some explanation is warranted.

Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Dan Bressler said notification was not made until Monday because the suspect was behind bars the entire time and was therefore "not a threat."

Further investigation also confirmed that the man still lives in the Turlock mobile home park where he last registered.

The attempting to annoy count, Segerstrom said, was added after the suspect loudly and graphically complained to deputies about how he was being treated and searched. His protests were made as children leaving school for the day were walking by.

Segerstrom said no attempted annoyance charge was brought, as the man said nothing directly to the students. The DA added that the van's driver was not found parked at the school or circling the campus. In fact, he added, there is no evidence he had been at the school or was going there.

This is where the Jamestown case departs from TV and movie scripts — there are uncertainties, loose ends and inconclusive evidence. Which doesn't mean that parents are resting easy.

Add to all this the fact that, just three days before the Jamestown incident, a suspicious van had been spotted in the Crystal Falls area following some children. Fortunately, they were taught well and ran away.

Yes, it can happen here. Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are home to more than 100 Megan's Law registrants and hundreds more live in neighboring counties. Complacency is not an option.

In the Jamestown case, the deputy was right to arrest the one-time suspect in Jamestown. When it comes to the safety of our children, erring on the side of caution is more than warranted. Similarly, the Sheriff's Office is right to continue investigating the man. His behavior and circumstances give rise to too many unanswered questions, and the "weirdness factor" alone begs more scrutiny.

However, while Bressler's explanation for the late notification of the county schools office makes sense, teachers and parents deserve a sooner-the-better policy.

County school and law enforcement officials, who meet once a month to discuss campus and student safety, should be commended for staying aware and involved.

On the schools front, The Union Democrat's Newspapers in Education Program is also working to keep the children in our communities safe. The program on Thursday will distribute more than 3,600 copies of "Smart Safety" to students in Tuolumne and Calaveras county schools. The publication emphasizes the importance of safety, making wise choices and, above all, staying away from strangers.

Yes, these are points often stressed by police, parents, teachers and many others. Still, they always bear repeating — because the unthinkable, as those two recent incidents suggest, could happen here.

What's your view on this issue? Write to letters@uniondemo- crat.com.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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