Towns across Alaska have to grapple with what to do once a known sex offender returns to the community after serving their punishment. Though there are clear limits in some areas, there are massive gray zones, as well. Residents in Homer are struggling to balance fairness with safety ahead of one of the Kenai Peninsula’s biggest celebrations.
Every year, Homer hosts the Nutcracker Faire. The family-affair draws people from all over the Kenai Peninsula for a pre-holiday craft fair and children’s performance of the nutcracker.
Abigail Kokai is an artist hoping to make a little extra cash by selling some of her stuffed whales made of repurposed materials.
“Particularly with the Nutcracker, I get to have face-to-face opportunities to meet the people that are actually buying my product,” Kokai said.
Kokai explains the Nutcracker is a big deal for local artists because it allows them to make a real-life connection with customers. Kokai was one of about a hundred vendors who applied to sell work at the festival.
As the Homer Council on the Arts, which puts on the event, was sifting through those applications earlier this fall, they noticed one from a convicted sex offender.
Erik Larson, a Homer man that was convicted of sexually abusing two teenage girls while he was a teacher in 2006, was applying to sell pottery. This raised concerns for Arts Council staff and board members, posing the question of whether or not Larson should be allowed to participate in the popular community event.
Kokai didn’t say whether or not she had a problem with Larson selling his work, but she thinks the choice comes down to faith in our current criminal justice system.
“I mean are they going to be punished for the rest of their life and never be able to live as a functional human being as a result of something that has happened, or do we assume or hope that our rehabilitation processes have allowed that person to successfully be a part of society again?” Kokai questioned.
Erik Larson didn’t want to comment for this story because he fears people in the community may lash out at his family. He said only that he wants “to be treated like everyone else” and have the same opportunity as other artists.
The incident is prompting local non-profits to look for solutions that are as much about policy as politics.
The Nutcracker Faire is held in the Homer High School. So, at first the council looked to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for guidance. But the district said its policy on registered sex offenders doesn’t apply here.
According to district Spokesperson Peggy Erkeneff, that’s because the policy only restricts offenders from being on school property during the school day or during school-sponsored events.
“In this case, an outside entity rented the Homer High School building for their event,” Erkeneff explained. “When they’re renting our space, there are no restrictions from a district perspective, if it’s outside of a school-sponsored event and outside of the school instructional day, as to who can be present.”
Since the Arts Council is just a tenant in the school building, it’s their own policy that guides rules.
But the organization realized it didn’t have clear guidance on the matter. That left Executive Director Peggy Paver and her board with a lot of questions about what the small non-profit should do.
“We did consult with legal, judicial and non-profit sources in order to get opinions because this is an area that we hadn’t really dealt with before,” Paver said.
The council offered a compromise allowing Larson to sell his pottery as long as someone else worked the booth. Larson told the council he would think about it, but never responded with a decision.
Larson also proposed having someone on hand to supervise him, but the council said it won’t have any staff and volunteers to spare.
Ultimately, the non-profit had no policy or legal grounds to deny Larson a spot at the fair. Paver said that left the council with a choice: is it appropriate for Larson to participate or not?
“It doesn’t escape us that this event is an event where minors are often off on their own, and then there are the Nutcracker kids that are participating in the ballet running around in their break time,” Paver added.
The council also had to weigh Larson’s personal rights. It’s been more than 10 years since his conviction, he’s served his sentence in prison and completed parole.
Paver and the council also worry they could be open to charges of discrimination if they reject Larson without a policy in place.
The situation has caught the attention of other non-profits, who are now asking themselves what they would do in the same situation.
“What considerations do we have, what protections need to be in place for our staff, for the people we serve in the community and what’s appropriate?” Catriona Reynolds said, executive director of Kachemak Bay Family Planning in Homer.
Both family planning and the Arts Council plan to revisit their policies and possibly craft new ones to handle this particular situation and others like it. Paver didn’t directly say which way her organization would lean on the issue. She said the board will likely address it in the spring, and at least for this year, the council will allow Larson to sell his work in person.