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Dad upset school confused him with sex offender

Indian Village limited his access when picking his kids up there.
10-11-2007 Indiana:

Jose R. Luera is not a child molester. Even the police say so.

But, thanks to a case of mistaken identity, a legitimate concern for student safety and Fort Wayne Community Schools' failure to do its homework, he's spent the past five months under a cloud of suspicion he never deserved.

“People are treating me like a criminal. Other parents are pulling their kids away from me,” said Luera, 41, who on May 11 received a letter from Indian Village Elementary School informing him that, as a convicted sex offender, he was banned from school property except to pick up his two children or to attend a meeting. And even then, Principal Stephany Bourne wrote, he would have to be escorted, and “If you enter the building for any other purpose or any other time, you will be trespassing and the police will be called to arrest you.”

Less than a month later, after receiving an irate letter from Luera's attorney, Bourne wrote another letter. “I … apologize for my actions,” it said. “As you know, decisions we make are always in the best interests of children … Unfortunately, an error occurred with regard to the background of Mr. Luera.”

An error occurred, all right. But why? And, perhaps more importantly, what are school officials doing to keep it from happening to somebody else?

The answers are not encouraging.

“Why didn't the schools even call us (before sending the May 11 letter)?” asked Luera's wife, Rose, who could have cleared up the misunderstanding by directing officials to the national sex-offender database. The site does indeed include a man with the same date of birth and a very similar name - Jose R. Leura, convicted of committing a lewd, lascivious act with a child. But the differences between the man in Fort Wayne and his near-namesake in Sarasota, Fla., go way beyond the two transposed letters in their last names. Jose Luera is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighs 198 pounds and is Hispanic. Jose Leura is white, stands 5 feet, 5 inches tall, weighs 146 pounds and has two hearts and a ribbon tattooed onto his right arm.

“The photo on the Web site is not even close to looking like Jose,” said Rose Luera, 46. “Unless you think all Hispanics look alike.”

The Lueras don't know who might have told school officials to investigate Jose's background or why they wrongly branded him a sex offender without even giving them a chance to explain. Nor does Jose know whether there's more than mere coincidence at work here. Luera said he was born in Florida and moved to Fort Wayne in 1989, suggesting Jose Leura might have stolen his identity.

As improbable as that sounds, it's no less bizarre than the notion a major school district would make such an accusation without a more thorough review of easily obtainable facts. Eight years ago, in fact, the Allen County Sheriff's Department had investigated and concluded the two Joses “are not one and the same. (emphasis added)”

And yet . . .

“I don't know if there's another way we'd ask a principal to handle this,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. “If we're being diligent, and get credible information about a sex offender, we have to pursue it. As soon as we discovered our mistake, we issued an apology and welcomed (the Lueras) back into the school.”

That last assertion is open to debate. The Lueras believe their access to the southwest-side school continues to be restricted and scrutinized - a suspicion perhaps rooted in disputes with Indian Village personnel that began even before the sex-offender charge emerged. The couple said they have been unhappy with how they perceive the school has handled their 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, who has Down syndrome. I should note that, even though Luera is not a convicted sex offender, he does have a criminal record, having been convicted in Tennessee on a drug charge in 1993, for which he remains on probation. But, in a written statement provided to the Lueras, FWCS Safety Director John Weicker said he had “no concern whatsoever” about Luera's Tennessee conviction. Both Weicker and Bourne declined to comment publicly.

In this dangerous and litigious age, schools have no choice but to take sex-offender allegations seriously. But they must also investigate with both diligence and caution, precisely because it is such a litigious age. In the end, this kind of story can please only lawyers.

“I want to sue somebody,” Jose Luera said. The couple's attorney, Nikos Nakos, said the Lueras have a strong case.

“It's legitimate to be concerned about student safety, but the schools should have contacted Luera and simply asked, ‘Is this true?' ” Nakos said. “They never gave the Lueras that chance. Their right to due process was violated, and they suffered emotional distress.”

As professional educators, school officials should be expected to learn from their mistake. ..more.. by Kevin Leininger, of The News-Sentinel

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