Teacher-student sex ‘never the kid’s fault’
Middle- and high school students may look to their teachers as mentors or even friends. In rare but high-profile cases, experts say, the relationship may go too far, into the sexual realm.
However the situation unfolds, it is always the responsibility of the teacher to keep appropriate boundaries. “It’s never the kid’s fault,” said New York psychologist Judith Alpert.
Amy Beck, a 33-year-old sixth-grade teacher in Burbank, California, is in police custody charged with five counts of unlawful sex with a person under 16. The student in question, a boy, was 14 at the time and has since moved to a different school, officials said.
For some, the case may evoke memories of Mary Kay Letourneau, now Mary Kay Fualaau, who served more than seven years in prison for having sex with a 13-year-old former student. They had two children and married in 2005.
What makes the latest case unusual, police say, is that the teacher turned herself in voluntarily and told detectives she had had inappropriate sexual relations with a student. Police say they went to verify this with the student and he confirmed it.
Beck is married to a police officer and the mother of three children. She recently resigned from her teacher’s job and is still in jail. Her arraignment, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed until March 25. If tried and convicted, she could face up to seven years in prison.
Although cases like these involving women attract attention, female teachers are more restrained in their sexual behavior in general, said Karin Meiselman, a psychologist in private practice in Pasadena, California. Cases involving male teachers happen more frequently but aren’t as much in the public eye, she said.
The teacher-student relationship mirrors that of the parent and child in the sense of a large power difference between perpetrator and victim, making sexual acts between instructor and pupil related to incest, experts say.
In both situations, the younger person is dependent on the authority figure, said Clare Cosentino, a psychologist in New York. The person in power is unable to see the child’s needs clearly and crosses established boundaries, she said.
But usually, the victims of incest are younger than those who are sexually abused by a teacher, Alpert said. If a parent is the perpetrator, the child is more trapped because the abuse occurs at home.
Moreover, there are often threats involved in incest that are not present in teacher-student relations. For example, a man may threaten to burn the house down if his daughter tells anyone about how he abuses her. Students, on the other hand, may simply be vulnerable to the attention of a teacher or even give in to sexual acts for the sake of better grades.
A phenomenon psychologists call transference occurs when people shift the feelings they had about parents to others, such as teachers. For instance, a male teacher may make a female student feel overpowered, just like a father figure, so she gives in, Alpert said.
Even if the student is perceived as flirtatious,”teachers should still keep their boundaries,” Meiselman said.
Loneliness or dissatisfaction with one’s relationships may be one factor driving teachers to sexually abuse students, Meiselman speculated. Children, being emotionally expressive and appealing, may become a source of emotional gratification and then sexual gratification when a certain line is crossed, she said.
“It’s hard to see how they lose track of reality, but people do lose track of reality, especially when they’re depressed or maybe abusing substances and things like that,” she said.
Teachers who have sex with students may be deeply insecure or have unresolved issues of their own, Cosentino said. They may be having a transitional crisis in their lives and welcome the admiration of a student who essentially puts them on a pedestal.
“They may fool themselves into thinking that this is a real love relationship without really understanding the power differential, the ways in which it’s profoundly damaging to the student,” she said.
Often, students vulnerable to these situations are also needy and don’t relate well to peers their own age, she said.
Some, but not all, adults who abuse minors have sexual abuse in their own histories, Meiselman said. These people may have identified with their abusers and taken on characteristics of the person who abused them, she said.
A student who has had inappropriate relations with a teacher will need therapy, even if the relationship felt consensual to the young person, Cosentino said. The student should explore why he or she felt vulnerable to the attraction of the teacher.
“As much as it may not have been experienced as trauma, it’s an abuse of power and crossing of a boundary, a loss of innocence,” she said.
There are also parallels between teacher-student sexual abuse and inappropriate relations between priests or other clergy and children, Meiselman said. In both cases, parents tend to trust the figure of authority and may not pick up on signs that something is amiss.
“It’s a serious violation of trust, both for the child and for the child’s parents,” she said.
To help prevent sexual abuse in school, children should be alerted to their rights in any situation involving a sexual predator, Meiselman said. They should be taught that if an adult does something to make them feel uncomfortable, they should tell a parent or other trustworthy person.
“Adults tend to picture sexual predators as weird-looking people in trench coats. A good education program emphasizes it could be anybody,” she said.
Schools should also train their staff on how to handle situations that would trigger concerns about possible sexual abuse, experts said.
Parents should be suspicious if the relationship between the teacher and the student seems excessive or obsessive, and seems to be becoming more important than other developmentally appropriate experiences, Cosentino said.
“A sixth-grader should be spending most of their time with other sixth-graders,” she said.