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Lessons to Learn: Female Educators Who Sexually Abuse Their Students

By Sara G. West, MD, Susan Hatters-Friedman, MD, and James L. Knoll IV, MD

Education is a noble profession, and society places a great deal of trust in those who dedicate their lives to teaching children. Unfortunately, a small percentage of those educators use their position of power to sexually exploit their students. While it is assumed that men are often responsible for this type of behavior, in recent years, a number of high-profile cases of female educator sexual misconduct have been covered by the media.

The abuse

“Educator sexual misconduct” is a term used to describe “behavior by an educator that is directed at a student and intended to sexually arouse or titillate the educator or the child.”2 The word “educator” not only includes classroom teachers but also coaches, counselors, administrators, tutors, and aides. Victims include students up through 12th grade. This misconduct pertains to any physical, verbal, or visual (such as showing pornography) sexual behavior between educator and student.

Following a federal mandate to investigate this topic, the US Department of Education published a literature review of educator sexual misconduct synthesized by Charol Shakeshaft in 2004. According to her analysis, 9.6% of high school students have experienced some form of educator sexual misconduct during their school career. The offenders were most commonly teachers or coaches, whose positions allowed them to spend increased individual time with particular students.3,4 Across 7 studies, the sex of the offender varied significantly; although the majority were men, 4% to 43% were women.3-10 The offenders ranged in age from 21 to 75 years, with a mean age of 28.8

The sex of the victim was somewhat less variable than that of the offender: 54% to 77% of the victims were female and 23% to 46% were male.3-8,10 Same-sex abuse was in the minority. In 13% of cases, female teachers abused female students.3-6,10 Within samples of victims, overrepresented minorities included black, Hispanic, and Native American children.3,4 Children with disabilities were at increased risk for sexual abuse because of greater individualized attention and because of their possible difficulties with communication.2

What the teacher is, is more important than what [s]he teaches.1
—Karl Menninger, MD

“Grooming” describes the process in which the offender lures the victim into the sexual abuse. Given their level of interaction with students, educators are in a unique position to do this. Grooming can also serve to make the student feel complicit in the behavior.11 A teacher may provide the student with increased attention while slowly initiating sexual behavior, including asking questions about the student’s sexuality or increasing general physical contact. The rewards and extra attention are meant to aid in the attachment of the child (and potentially the child’s parents) to the teacher, while the behavior tests the student’s ability to keep a secret and be compliant with the wishes of the abuser.

Borderline inappropriate acts may also desensitize the child to the commencement of more overt sexual activity. To maintain the relationship, the educator may resort to manipulation, exploitation, or intimidation—including the loss of the contact with the educator (which the child may value) or threatening academic or other consequences for revealing the nature of their contact.2

A number of features may distinguish students who fall victim to educator sexual misconduct. These youths are often isolated from their peers and their families, which makes the abuse less likely to be detected. They may be shy and quiet, which makes them easier to control and less likely to disclose the abuse to an adult. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the victims may be troublemakers who, on the basis of their past behavior, are not likely to be believed by authorities even if they do report the abuse.10,11

The offenders

Women account for fewer than 10% of all arrests made for sexual offenses.12 It is strongly suspected that this figure represents an underestimate of the actual number of crimes that occur. For example, 60% to 80% of men sexually abused during their childhood identified a female perpetrator.13-15 Female sex offenders are often white, have a history of substance use, and have been victims of sexual abuse themselves. They often commit the crimes in their 20s and 30s.16

Several typologies assist in understanding these offenders. One of the categories, the “teacher/lover,” describes women who assert that they are educating their victims about sex as part of a consensual relationship. They often claim that their behavior does not constitute abuse.17 “Heterosexual nurturers” are women who develop sexual relationships with children and adolescents on the basis of feelings of love or a desire for intimacy. These women also often mistakenly assert that their behavior is not abusive.18

Educators working in primary education (K-12) who engage in sexual activity with their students can be categorized by the age of their victims.2 The first group consists of those who sexually abuse elementary schoolchildren. These individuals are frequently considered high achievers in their profession. They may have won awards highlighting their outstanding teaching abilities and are frequently well liked by both students and parents. The educators may use this positive standing to become close to students (and their families) and increase their ability to surreptitiously engage in sexual relationships with the children. These traits make the revelation of their aberrant behavior all the more shocking to the community, and allegations may be initially overlooked on the basis of the teachers’ reputations. In addition, these educators also have the potential to serially reoffend when they move to another location if they are relieved of their present teaching position.

The second group includes educators who sexually abuse older students. Their abuse tends to be unplanned and the result of immaturity and bad judgment rather than the premeditated behavior repeated with multiple victims that typifies the former group.

The idea of a teacher engaging in sexual activity with a young student is disturbing and may lead to the consideration that mental illness fuels this behavior. In 2004, Debra Lafave, a 23-year-old teacher, was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old male student. Her attorney, on the basis of his client’s history of extremes of mood and other symptoms of bipolar illness, prepared an insanity defense. He stated, “Here we have a woman that, by every societal standard, can get a date, can get a man. Yet, she destroyed her career, destroyed her marriage. I believe the only logical reason why Debra Lafave did what she did was because of her mental illness.” According to 3 psychiatrists for the defense, she suffered from bipolar disorder. Ultimately, Lafave accepted a plea bargain.19

Currently, there is little empirical evidence related to the presence of mental illness in female sexual offenders overall. In a study of 15 women charged with a sexual offense who were referred to a psychiatric facility for forensic evaluation, one-half (n = 7) had mild mental retardation or borderline intellectual function, one-third (n = 5) were depressed, and one-fifth (n = 3) were psychotic. None had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use was rarely associated with the crimes.20 Another study showed that female sex offenders had a personal history of more severe sexual abuse, were more likely to have attempted suicide, and were more likely to have received a diagnosis of PTSD than their male counterparts.21

The following vignette is an amalgamation of several different cases described by the media.22 It high-lights several characteristics common among women who sexually abuse their students.

CASE VIGNETTE

Mrs Smith was a 28-year-old, high school biology teacher in a small town. She was well liked by students, parents, and colleagues. Students easily identified with her because of her youthful appearance. Soon after she started teaching, rumors surfaced that photos of her wearing seductive attire were available on the Internet. Although this caused a stir within the school, the administration did not become involved. Mrs Smith admitted that these pictures were of her, appeared contrite, and explained that they were taken some time ago; the incident was forgotten relatively quickly.

During the fall of the next school year, Mrs Smith began attending many high school football games. Unbeknownst to others, she started paying close attention to one of the players, who was also one of her students. Joe was a 14-year-old varsity linebacker who was unusually tall for his age. He did not often socialize with his teammates and was considered a loner.

Mrs Smith initially contacted Joe by e-mail, offering to assist him with his homework after school in her classroom. He accepted, flattered by the attention from an attractive, young female teacher. These tutorial sessions then moved to her home on Thursday evenings. Mrs Smith began asking him increasingly personal questions during these sessions. Initially, she inquired how he felt about various female classmates, and then eventually about his past sexual activities.

After 6 months, she encouraged him to take an overnight trip with her to a museum located a few hours away. She told him that his parents might be uncomfortable with the idea, so she encouraged him to tell them that he was spending the night at a friend’s house. It was during this trip that Mrs Smith and Joe first engaged in sexual activity, which both later described as consensual. Following the initial encounter, their meetings took place with increasing frequency: at first limited to hotels, then in her car, and finally in her classroom during her free period.

Joe’s parents noticed that his school performance was slipping and his few friends denied any recent contact with him. Concerned, his parents searched his room. Under his bed, they found a number of love letters from Mrs Smith, and they discovered on his computer a file containing photos of Mrs Smith and their son engaging in sexual activity. Joe’s parents approached the school board and the police with their findings.

The aftermath

Allegations of sexual misconduct by an educator are often made to the school board rather than to the police. These reports almost always concern inappropriate physical contact, not verbal or visual abuse,10 and false accusations are uncommon.2 The consequences of the abuse reported by students often include negative ef-fects on academic achievement, fear of repercussion, and health problems.3,4 As for the educators, many go on to teach again. For those women who are prosecuted, there is some debate concerning whether they are less severely punished than male sex offenders.23

Treatment considerations

Psychiatrists may find themselves treating either victims or perpetrators of educator sexual misconduct. Similar to other forms of abuse of minors, a physician is legally obligated to inform the appropriate authorities—regardless of the perpetrator. This may include a call to local law enforcement, depending on the urgency of the situation. Some experts who have studied mandatory reporting laws for sexual abuse of children suggest that other alternatives, such as the construction of a clinical treatment plan for the minor and the offender in lieu of obligatory reporting, may lead to better protection for minors and improved treatment for offenders.24

Little literature exists specifically on the effects of educator sexual misconduct on children. Clinicians should be aware that any child who has been abused is more likely to develop suicidal ideation,25 depression, and diminished self-esteem.26 Victims may suffer from a sense of betrayal, given that the abuse was perpetrated by someone whom they were encouraged to trust.2 Clinicians may also need to address the victim’s mistaken assumption that the abuse is socially acceptable, since it was perpetrated by someone who should serve as a role model.3,4

It is important to realize that the abuse extends to the child’s family, so family therapy and individual therapy for the parents may be warranted. Parents may require intensive therapy for feelings of guilt, self-blame, depression, and denial, especially if they are the primary care providers for their abused child in the period immediately following the abuse.

In treating the perpetrators of educator sexual misconduct, be aware that a serious violation of the teacher’s professional boundaries has occurred and work on better delineating those boundaries and highlighting to the offenders the ways in which they abused their power.27,28 Different treatment approaches may be required for offenders who victimize young children (pedophiles) than for those who target high school–aged children (the teacher/lover or heterosexual nurturer category). If the crimes are prosecuted, these potentially high-profile offenders may have limited housing and employment options secondary to a requirement to register as a sex offender. It is unclear whether standard sex offender treatment and relapse prevention treatment are effective in this population.

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APA Reference
Martin, L. (2012). Lessons to Learn: Female Educators Who Sexually Abuse Their Students. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2014, from http://pro.psychcentral.com/lessons-to-learn-female-educators-who-sexually-abuse-their-students/00857.html

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Apr 2012