Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone

The Australian
Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone

December 17, 2005

Deborah Hope and Tracy Ong

CINEMA audiences were shocked and titillated when the predatory Mrs. Robinson seduced a college kid in the 1967 film The Graduate. Forty years later, Mrs. Robinson is turning up everywhere, including in the schoolyard and with under-age partners.
In the latest Australian cases to hit the headlines, two female teachers are accused of sexual relationships with 15-year-old boys. Bridget Nolan, 24, of Adelaide faces the prospect of jail after pleading guilty to having sex with a pupil, while a 36-year-old Melbourne woman has been charged after allegedly engaging in oral sex on six occasions this year with a student attending her North Melbourne school.

A third Australian, former Melbourne PE teacher Karen Louise Ellis, was released in October after six months in prison following her affair with a 15-year-old student. His mother, the same age as Ellis, reported the pair after finding 499 text messages from the former teacher on her son’s mobile phone.

In the US, a rash of high-profile cases involving female teachers and their teen lovers has led to a raging debate over whether a double standard applies when it comes to the way society, the media and the courts view sexual misconduct and the web of ethical, moral and legal issues involved.

At the heart of the debate is Debra Lafave, 25, a Florida teacher described in news reports as a sexpot, “hottie” and the subject of every teenage boy’s dreams. Lafave’s blonde good looks and second job as a bikini model led to her defence lawyer in effect claiming she was too pretty to send to jail for repeated sex with a 14-year-old pupil.

A plea bargain that would have had her detained for three years under a form of house arrest rather than behind bars was thrown out last week after a public outcry over the leniency and objections by a judge in a second county where she faces charges.

In another case that has hot-wired critical media commentary, Sandra Beth Geisel, 42, a former Catholic schoolteacher, was last month sentenced to six months’ jail in New York state for her affair with a 16-year-old student.

The judge ruled that, although Geisel’s behaviour had “crossed the line” to the realm of the “totally unacceptable”, the teenager was a victim only in the strictly legal sense.

Far less leniency was extended to Mary Kay Letourneau, the notorious former elementary school teacher who served seven years for child rape following her long-running affair with a pupil, Vili Fualaau, that began when he was 12, produced two children and, after her release, a wedding.

This disturbing new take on the Mrs. Robinson theme is set to hit cinema screens in a new film, Notes on a Scandal, starring Cate Blanchett as the older woman. Based on Zoe Heller’s Booker short-listed novel about a pottery teacher and her sizzling relationship with an artistic 15-year-old pupil, the film, still in production, follows the couple’s progress from frenzied copulation on the art-room floor to public scandal.

Obsession with boyhood is hardly new. Germaine Greer celebrated the eroticism of male youth “from Adonis and images of St Sebastian to James Dean and Calvin Klein models” in her 2003 book The Beautiful Boy.

Greer successfully provoked controversy by talking about boys’ semen “flowing like tap-water”, but her message, like Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice, of look and admire but do not touch is one that may have been lost on a growing list of classroom teachers.

“There have always been cases involving female teachers and male students,” says David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Centre in the US. “But school officials have been reluctant to prosecute because either they didn’t think it was a serious offence or they didn’t think they could persuade others that it was.”

A US government study of sexual misconduct by teachers with students published last year found that 7 per cent of school pupils had been sexually or physically abused by teachers or other school employees. A woman was the abuser in 22 per cent of cases.

The most detailed nationwide study on the subject, it reported that teachers who sexually abused children were often the most admired in their school environment, that an elaborate grooming process often took place to lead teenage victims into sexual relationships and that abusers worked hard to keep children from telling.

According to the study, classrooms, hallways, offices, buses, cars, the educator’s home and cinemas were the settings for sexual misconduct, which sometimes occurred even in front of other students. In some instances, sexual intercourse between a teacher and a pupil occurred in a storage room attached to a classroom while the rest of the class worked at their desks.

The study’s author is Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at New York’s Hofstra University. According to Shakeshaft, a new media focus on cases involving female teachers and their male students has changed the public discourse, pressuring school districts and prosecutors into taking them seriously.

“What we found in the ’80s and ’90s was that prosecutors would say: ‘I won’t be able to convict.’ The result was that many school districts made deals with abusers and some went on to teach or do youth work elsewhere, or moved from public schools to teach in private schools.”

Shakeshaft questions claims of a double standard. “At this stage it’s just conjecture. A lot of males get light or no sentences as well.”

She stresses, however, that a custodial sentence is always appropriate, regardless of the sex of the abuser.

“Both male and female teachers hold positions of trust and both are responsible for making sure there is a safe climate in the schoolyard,” she says. “It’s a breach of trust and ethics and law, and it harms kids.”

Despite an impression of a recent dramatic rise in the number of cases of classroom sex involving female teachers and their teen charges, Finkelhor says all the evidence points to a decline in all categories of sexual abuse of children. He lists different reasons for the increasing willingness to prosecute. The US scandal involving sexual abuse by priests, which has drawn more attention to cases involving teachers and other authority figures, partly explains the trend.

But Finkelhor also says he thinks the growing number of women in law enforcement ranks is a factor. “I think [female law officers] are a little less beholden to the traditional view that this is some young boy getting lucky and more apt to see violation of responsibility,” he says. “The bottom line is that it’s the educator’s responsibility to put a stop to it. They are the grown-ups.”

Other experts say greater recognition that sexual abuse of boys can be just as serious as abuse of girls may explain the rise in cases in the public spotlight.

However, New York psychologist and author Richard Gartner, a specialist in male sexual abuse, says boys who are victimised still don’t receive the same counselling help as girls in the same predicament and often do not see themselves as victims until much later, sometimes decades later.

“Looking back at the direction their life has taken, often there are periods of alcoholism, or sexual addiction, or they may never have had a relationship in adulthood that lasted more than two or three months because of a loss of trust. They may have been in trouble with the law,” he says.

Gartner says boys targeted by sexual predators are often outsiders in some way and hungry for affection. And while boys are considered capable of taking care of themselves, “15-year-olds do not have the judgment to make decisions about sexual relationships, let alone about having children”.

With adolescence starting earlier, Queensland-based clinical psychologist Bob Montgomery says there are plenty of 15-year-old boys with the body shape and sexual appearance of young adults. “You can understand why adults might find a boy sexually attractive, but that physical maturity is not matched by emotional or psychological maturity,” says Montgomery, communications director for the Australian Psychological Society. He says our tendency to wink and say a teenage boy is just sowing his wild oats if he is seduced by an older woman fails to recognise the 50 per cent risk of harm to a child of either sex from a sexual episode with an adult.

The breach of trust involved when it is a teacher crossing the ethical line into sexual misconduct, he says, means the risks of long-term psychological damage increase.

When a 12-year-old central Queensland boy became entangled in a six-month-long sexual relationship with his 28-year-old teacher, Heidi Choat, in 1997, friends dubbed him “Fabio” after the long-locked model who has graced the covers of countless romance novels. Choat was sentenced to two years’ jail after her boyfriend discovered letters she wrote to the victim, describing the boy licking whipped cream off her breasts.

“Fabio” told police the relationship was like one of boyfriend and girlfriend but added that he was aware the relationship was wrong and feared the consequences of getting caught.

“There is no doubt in our minds this is abuse,” says Annie Crowe, the program manager at Australia’s largest sexual assault service, based at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.

Recognising that schoolboys as well as girls are vulnerable to sexual assault, the NSW parliament amended the Crimes Act two years ago, changing a section that previously referred to carnal knowledge by a teacher with a 16-year-old girl to be gender neutral.

In Victoria, sexual offences by teachers of either sex were covered as a specific category for the first time in new legislation passed a month ago.

Courts may be taking a stand against female sexual offenders but the punishment meted out in Australia and the US has been criticised as lenient compared with male offenders. The Ellis case, for instance, has been widely compared with Gavin Hopper, a tennis coach sentenced to 3 1/2 years’ prison last year for abusing a 14-year-old female student in the 1980s.

In the past it would have been inconceivable that women would have been involved in predatory behaviour, says Kath Albright, a University of Sydney specialist in sexuality. But she says women’s overt sexuality in 2005 is less surprising than the idea young men are in a position to complain about it.

“In the past when it happened it would have been regarded as a fantastic rite of passage,” she says. “Stand-up comics doing routines on this issue joke about ‘that lucky bastard’. The myth is that men are always up for it and that there’s no such thing as a bad sexual experience.”

Albright credits feminism with forging more understanding of the harmful nature of a sexual relationship with someone in a position of power. As recently as the 1970s it was seen as “fairly normal for university lecturers to go out with their students”. Now, she says, “it’s viewed as beyond the pale”.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for 2003 show just 22 women among a total of 1577 defendants accused of sexual offences. With more than 90 per cent of sexual abuse perpetrated by men and few cases involving women reaching the courts, Bond University criminologist Paul Wilson says, “an antiquated view of female sexuality lingers on”, along with the belief that women don’t perpetrate sexual abuse.

“In the high-profile cases it might be illegal and it might be immoral,” Wilson says. “But it’s hard not to see the male victim as consenting and relatively mature.”

When it comes to sentencing, Finkelhor argues that whether or not teachers who abuse their pupils are sent behind bars, and for how long, is a minor issue compared with the deterrent effect of getting caught and the shame involved in being cast into a scandalous public glare.

Melbourne clinical psychologist Heather Gridley agrees: “Even a sentence that might look lenient means you are never going to be a teacher again. I’d question whether you would call it a light sentence.”