Female teachers accused of sex crimes against underage male students have been grabbing headlines lately. Many of them are young and beautiful, their stories sordid and intriguing.
But to law enforcement, they're something else — criminals who have committed statutory rape against a minor.
This week alone, two cases have hit the news: Cops say one Texas teacher, Kathy Denise White (search) had sex with a 17-year-old, and Tennessee teacher Pamela Rogers Turner (search) had sex with a 13-year-old boy.
They join at least three other recent cases: Florida teacher Debra LaFave (search), 24, is expected to plead insanity to charges she had sex with a 14-year-old student, according to her lawyer; California teacher Sarah Bench-Salorio (search), 28, allegedly molested two boys when they were 12 and 14; and 33-year-old California teacher Rebecca Boicelli (search) was arrested last month on statutory rape and related charges after DNA tests confirmed that a former student fathered her 2-year-old baby when he was 16.
All of them follow the trail laid by Mary Kay Letourneau (search), whom the media tracked again last year when she was released from prison after more than seven years. The former Seattle teacher said she’s still in love with her now-21-year-old student (who was 12 when she was 34 and fathered the first of the two children they had together); the pair have since reportedly gotten engaged.
Law enforcement officials and sociologists wonder whether there are really more of these cases, or are they just getting more press?
"Certainly the reporting of these kinds of things do prompt other reports," said Tom Eveslage, a journalism professor at Temple University (search). "It gets a little bit more sticky when we start talking about [whether] this justifies the media going gaga over all these kinds of stories."
Female teachers who commit statutory rape still represent a fraction of the number of sex offenders, though few hard numbers are available and the FBI's National Crime Information Center (search) said it doesn't document the occupations of the reported offenders.
Still, the stories make news, because reporters, chat rooms and members of the public are mystified about why a teacher would have sex with a student who's underage.
"Older women involved with underage males is nothing new," said Louis B. Schlesinger, a forensic psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (search ) in New York. "That’s been going on many, many, many years. The general view is that it’s a rite of passage. … The guy is lucky."
But the "guy" is also a minor, the "rite of passage," a crime — even if it was consensual sex.
Just as there’s pedophilia involving young children, there’s also a related disorder called hebophilia, which is sexual attraction to adolescents, or postpubescent minors. In the smattering of recent cases, the students were between the ages of 13 and 17.
"Some adult men and women are attracted to teenagers," said Schlesinger. "These are teachers with boundary problems. Their boundaries are very fluid."
Last summer, a report contracted by the government under the "No Child Left Behind Act" (search) drew ire from the American Federation of Teachers (search) and other education leaders. It was an attempt to document cases of sexual offenses by teachers of their students, but "even the preface to the report, written by Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok (never one to shy away from criticizing public schools), expresses reservations about the author's jumbling the terms 'sexual abuse' and 'sexual misconduct,'" the AFT said in a statement in July.
"This confusion is especially troubling because the report could have supported policy makers, parents and school officials working to keep sexual predators away from students," the AFT statement read. "Sexual abuse" refers to the more serious charges of molestation; "sexual misconduct" is a broader and vaguer term.
But despite the negative press teachers and schools — mostly in the public school system — get when these sorts of cases are reported, the National Education Association (search) said children and teens are still safe in school.
"Schools are among the safest places for children to be, statistically speaking," said NEA spokesman Michael Pons. "There is a whole network of people there to take care of the children's health. Within that community, there is built-in support to prevent any inappropriate thing."
But, he said, the NEA does take such issues seriously and has a number of policies in place to prevent inappropriate relationships between teachers and students of any gender from developing.
"When there's an allegation for inappropriate conduct, it absolutely should be investigated," said Pons. "It should be turned over to the authorities. We absolutely support that.
"Any time something bad like this happens, obviously it's going to be news — it is quite remarkable," Pons said. "It's a signal to parents and schools to be more vigilant."
The number of cases of sexual abuse by teachers — female and male — is still by many estimates less than 10 percent of all sex crimes against minors, though there have been stories about male teachers committing statutory rape with their female students in the news for decades.
But the five or more cases that have gotten publicity lately have still involved serious charges, and many unanswered questions. A whole host of factors plays into how that attraction springs up and what sort of woman — or man — would do such a thing. And of course, each case is individual.
From a criminal standpoint, it has to do with exhibitionism, manipulation, power and a number of other physiological and psychological elements, according to Schlesinger.
"We don’t know the details of any of them — why they were brought to the jury system," he said. "It’s very hard to know from a distance the levels of motivation for these people."
Media analysts say the coverage in some media is glorified as salacious when it comes to female teachers having sex with their teenaged students.
"This story is part crime drama, part Penthouse letter," said Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (search). "It all began with the Letourneau case, which was a gateway drug for the news networks. They got hooked on it."
Female teachers are often treated differently in the media than male teachers who have sex with underage students.
"The main dichotomy is in coverage — men are demonized, women are diagnosed," Felling said. "Men are beasts, but women are troubled, or mentally ill." Or the women are simply portrayed as voluptuous and sexual. In the LaFave case, suggestive photographs of her surfaced shortly after the news of her affair with the student broke.
The story is so accepted that it was even one of the plotlines in NBC’s "Friends" — Phoebe’s younger brother had an affair with his teacher and wound up fathering her children and marrying her — and a twist on it (with a female neighbor instead of a teacher and a high school student) is in the current ABC hit "Desperate Housewives," both on prime-time network television.
Many of the most high-profile teachers in the news lately have been charismatic, which Schlesinger says contributes to the media and public interest.
"When a woman is an offender, it’s treated differently — especially if she’s attractive," he said. "It shakes everybody’s conception of what should be."
But sometimes, the "offenders" turn out not to be guilty.
"The teacher has to be concerned because there can be a vindictive kid" who can falsely accuse the person at the head of the class of a sex crime, said Temple University's Eveslage. "This is where the media has to be careful."
But, he added, the press is doing its job as a societal watchdog in a complex system of checks and balances.
"The abuse of authority and power by church leaders or government officials or teachers deserves to be reported," said Eveslage.
"Power needs to be watched. The media provides that check as a watchdog."