• U.S.

Dangerous Liaisons

7 minute read
Melba Newsome

The case was shocking, scandalous yet oddly familiar. Debra Lafave, 25, a stunning blond schoolteacher, faced charges in two Florida counties in connection with a sexual relationship she had with one of her students, a boy of just 14. Investigators said she had had sex with the boy in her classroom, at her home and in the back of her SUV. Last month charges were dropped in Marion County, where the SUV incident is said to have occurred, because the boy’s family did not want him dragged through a tawdry trial. They had worked out a plea agreement in Hillsborough County that sentences Lafave to three years of house arrest, seven years of probation and lifetime registration as a sex offender who cannot work with or near children. “We only hope, in the next few weeks, Debbie will fade to a footnote,” her lawyer, John Fitzgibbons, told the Tampa Tribune.

But there are so many such footnotes:

> MARCH 2006, WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.: In a plea agreement, music teacher Carol Flannigan, 51, began serving a five-year prison sentence (to be followed by 10 years of sex-offender probation) for lewd and lascivious molestation of a student that began when the boy was 11. The relationship lasted 19 months, say police.

> JANUARY 2006, SANTA ANA, CALIF.: English teacher Sarah Bench-Salorio, 29, was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to 29 counts of lewd conduct (sex with three boys–two of her former students and one of their friends–ages 11 to 13).

> SEPTEMBER 2005, WORCESTER, MASS.: Amber Jennings, 32, pleaded guilty to disseminating harmful materials to a minor (e-mails and nude photos and videos of herself and the teen) and was sentenced to two years’ probation. A charge of sex with a minor was dropped. Jennings was the boy’s freshman-English teacher; the two later became involved in a six-month sexual relationship that ended when he was 16.

> AUGUST 2005, MCMINNVILLE, TENN.: Elementary-school phys-ed teacher Pamela Rogers, 28–another bombshell blond–received a nine-month jail sentence in a plea deal, plus eight years’ probation, for four counts of sexual battery by an authority figure. She had a 2 1/2-month relationship with a student, 13.

All those follow the most notorious teacher-student sex case in recent memory: that of Mary K. Letourneau. In 1996 the married elementary-school teacher and mother of four, 34, conceived a child with her former student, Vili Fualaau, then 13. Her marriage ended, and she was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for child rape; a sympathetic judge knocked down the penalty to six months. Once released, she resumed the affair, got pregnant again and was returned to prison to serve the remainder of her 7 1/2 years. Released in 2004, she picked up where she left off with Fualaau, by then 21. Less than a year later, with their two young daughters as flower girls, the unlikely couple exchanged wedding vows in a lavish ceremony at a Washington State winery.

There is no way to know whether more female teachers are having relationships with young male students or whether more are simply being reported. But as these cases make clear, inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships are not rare. According to Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of foundations, leadership and policy studies at Hofstra University, sexual misconduct is the top reason teaching licenses are revoked. “About 10% of kids report that sometime during K to 12, they have been the target of some form of educator sexual misconduct, and about 7% report physical sexual misconduct,” she says. “About one-third of those cases are female teachers to male students.”

A gangly, immature adolescent boy holds little appeal for the vast majority of women. But such qualities are precisely what these women find irresistible, says Dr. Gilbert Kliman, medical director of the Children’s Psychological Health Center Inc. in San Francisco. Kliman has consulted on several cases involving female teachers and counselors who sexually assaulted young boys. “The fact that these boys were all at the dawn of their sexuality and were inexperienced seemed to heighten the interest of these women,” he says. “They found the instructional quality of the relationship very appealing.”

Most offenders share traits besides being accomplished, attractive and married. They tend to be socially naive and have a desperate need to be liked by their students, says University of Connecticut psychiatrist Catherine Lewis. That ultimately makes them unable to maintain proper teacher-student boundaries. And because they may lack the emotional maturity to negotiate age-appropriate relationships, being with a young boy feels less threatening to them. “They typically have had dysfunctional childhoods and poor relationships with their fathers as well as a pattern of abusive relationships,” says Lewis. Whereas predatory male teachers often become involved with a series of young female students, female predators usually become fixated on one particular boy. “They are motivated by feelings they perceive as love and believe that the boy is special and not like other boys,” says Lewis, who has studied dozens of cases. “It’s a very idealized, romanticized and intense relationship, almost like a fantasy.”

Letourneau fits that model. She has said she fell in love with Fualaau while working with him on a sixth-grade art project when he was 12 and claims that after a while a sexual relationship just seemed “natural.” In a phone call recorded by police, Flannigan’s student-lover asked the teacher why she had chosen to have sex with him. She reportedly answered, “I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know why I love you so much.”

Shakeshaft believes much educator abuse could be prevented if schools did a better job of identifying predatory teachers. Instructors who lock classroom doors, repeatedly keep a student after school or contact him at home should be suspect. “There are a lot of signs no one recognizes because school officials have not been trained to identify them,” she says. “If the teacher is highly motivated to seem cool, you should wonder why. A mature teacher doesn’t focus on being cool or accepted. Her goal should be being able to reach the kids.”

In nearly every case of female-teacher sexual abuse, the relationship is discovered by a third party. Boys often tell friends of their involvement with the teacher, but they generally don’t see themselves as victims and are therefore unlikely to report abuse to parents or authorities. In fact, unlike female victims, they may be envied or held in higher esteem by their peers.

A double standard also exists within the criminal-justice system. San Diego elementary-school teacher Thad Jesperson was sentenced to 15 years to life last year for molesting four girls over two academic years. Also in 2005, a South Carolina judge gave Mark Vail, a former church schoolteacher and coach, 10 years for having sex with a student, then 12. Female perpetrators, by contrast, tend to get brief sentences and probation, as in Lafave’s case and Letourneau’s first one.

“Society is very concerned about protecting the virginity of girls but not so much with boys,” explains Kliman. “There has been a tradition in many societies of women initiating boys into a sexual relationship or where boys are sent off to have sex with a prostitute, and that’s sometimes regarded as being helpful to shy and sexually unassertive boys.”

But experts are quick to point out that boys are also victims, and they may suffer long-term consequences from their abuse. “Crossing the boundary from trusted teacher to romantic partner is likely to cause a long-standing distrust of authority figures,” says Kliman. “It sets up a link between strong gratification and strong corruption. The boy will probably be confused by what other moral boundaries he should expect to be broken.”

Lafave’s victim is now a high school sophomore. He plays basketball, has a new driver’s license and doesn’t like to talk about what happened. His mother says he just wants to move on.


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