Teacher Sex Abuse: Hard To Predict

It used to be unthinkable, bit has become oddly routine: an attractive, married teacher accused of having a sexual relationship with a child.

Debra LaFave was charged last June. Basketball coach Pamela Turner was charged last week. And Mary Kay Letourneau finished a seven year prison term last year for her affair with a student, and has now set a date to marry him.

A recent Education Department report says nearly 7 percent of students have experienced unwanted sexual contact from an educator.

The Early Show correspondent Tracy Smith observes that, in each case, there was an accusation of sexual misconduct with a young male student, a grim walk through a gauntlet of TV cameras, and at home, a thoroughly mortified husband.

"Honestly, some days, I don't want to get out of bed in the morning," LaFave's husband, Owen LaFave, told Smith when she asked him how he gets through each day.

Owen had been married to Debra for less than a year. Both were young, attractive, professional, fun. Debra seemed to have it all. Then, last year, she was charged with having an affair with a 14-year-old boy.

The affair, Smith says, allegedly took place right under Owen's nose. Debra is said to have had sex with the student at school, in her car -- and in her home.

For Owen, the media coverage was especially cruel: "It was crushing, a tremendous amount of pain. And very humiliating…in the sense that I had a wife that was accused of having a relationship with a child.

"Then one of the comments mentioned was that I had an inability to perform or that I wasn't satisfying her. So, to hear those comments talked about openly on the public forum was humiliating. And difficult, I think, as a male in society to deal with."

In cases like these, Smith points out, there's also a belief -- by some -- that the male victims of abuse are somehow less victimized than females.

"Because she's pretty," says Mark Hart of the Hillsborough County School District, "there's a misconception that he's not a victim, but a stud. Well, he's not a stud, he's a victim."

"One of the reasons boys don't think of it as harmful," suggests CBS News legal analyst Wendy Murphy, "is, when they talk about it, they get a pat on the back – 'Atta boy, you lucky guy, you got it make it with your teacher.' We have to stop doing that to boys, because when they age into sexual maturity, that's when they start to realize that it really wasn't pleasurable, it really was abuse, and often, that's too late to do the repair work the victims need."

The trick, then, is looking for the warning signs -- but that may not be easy, Smith notes.

What kind of teacher was LaFave? "By all accounts," says Hart, "an outstanding teacher. Very positive performance evaluations, solid recommendations, and cleared the criminal background check required of all employees."

"It's unfortunate, but true, that the cheapest way to screen for potentially harmful teachers is to see whether they have a criminal record," Murphy points out. "But most teachers who hurt kids don't have criminal backgrounds. That doesn't mean they don't have a history of harming children."

In this case, even Debra's husband was blindsided. "Things were fine. Things were great. And this took me completely off guard," Owen recalls.

Some experts say the answer is to keep a closer eye on teachers.

"What we need to do better both as parents and school officials," Murphy says, "is a better job of recognizing the warning signs before a student is hurt. That means noticing teachers who are too close to kids, who may be touching them in an inappropriate manner, inviting them over to their homes, calling them at their homes at night. These kinds of minor boundary violations usually are a sign that something inappropriate is going on and that's the time to intervene.

"This is about the trust parents give us when they send their children to school," Hart commented. "Those are the kinds of issues we should be talking about, instead of dwelling on the lurid details."

Owen is now working on a documentary about teacher sex abuse. Smith says he hopes it'll help him gain some insight into why this happens, and perhaps bring some closure to a horrible chapter of his life.

Smith says parents shold incorporate teachers into their talks with kids about avoiding sex abuse as one way to help head off situations like these.
  • Brian Dakss

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