Suzanne Owen made the list just this month. Stephanie Peterson and Brittany Zamora made the list in February and March 2018 respectively. No, this is not People magazine's “Most Beautiful Women in the World" list. These are just a few of the women who have “earned" places on a long list of females with particular commonalities. They're educated, on solid academic career paths, attractive and in many instances married. And, oh yes, they're predators who've had sexual relationships with their underage students! Why do these women choose to jeopardize everything they've achieved to perpetrate this illicit behavior? Although there are definite similarities in the profiles of these women, each case has its own story and conceivable explanation, some obvious, and others inscrutable.
Details of these affairs are fodder for the tabloids, and some aspects of the individual stories are mind-boggling. Suzanne Owen, 35 years old and married with children, was arrested in April for having sexual relations with a student from the Evangelical Christian School in Fort Myers, Florida, where she was a teacher. Stephanie Peterson was a 26-year-old married woman who taught at New Smyrna Beach Middle School in Florida. An illicit affair began when she texted nude photos of herself to a 14-year-old former student of hers who later became her teacher's aide. She would pick him up from his home late in the evening, while her husband, a fireman, was at work. They would spend several hours together having sex at which time she also provided him with marijuana. Ms. Peterson's father, an attorney, is handling her case. Brittany Zamora, a 26-year-old sixth-grade teacher, had sex with a 13-year-old male student, a fact discovered by his parents from texts and sexual pictures they saw on his cell phone while using a parental app. Brittany's husband contacted the boy's father to ask him to meet to discuss not alerting authorities to this matter. The father was not in agreement with this, and Mrs. Zamora was arrested. As this article is being written, new information is surfacing regarding Ms. Zamora and the possibility of an additional victim.
"Brittany Zamora, a 26-year-old sixth-grade teacher, had sex with a 13-year-old male student, a fact discovered by his parents from texts and sexual pictures they saw on his cell phone while using a parental app." Photo Courtesy of AZCentral
Aside from the most publicized of all these women, (perhaps the Harvey Weinstein of teacher-student sex scandals) Mary Kay Letourneau, who made headlines throughout the country back in the early 1990's, we are not privy to the backgrounds of most of these women. Mrs. Letourneau was 34, married and the mother of 4 children when she began a sexual relationship with her 12-year-old student. She had suffered several sad events in her earlier life: Her 3-year-old brother drowned while Mary Kay, 11 at the time, and her older brother were supposed to be watching him. Another sad chapter in her childhood was when her father had to relinquish his professorship when it was discovered he was having an affair with one of his students and fathered two illegitimate children. At the time of Mary Kay's affair, she was suffering from an unhappy marriage with an abusive husband. There were many deeply disturbing years in Mary Kay's life, which may have weakened her emotional stability, but none can be an excuse or justification for her later behavior. Little is known about the history of most of the other offenders to link their backgrounds to their inappropriate behavior. In the cases of some of the particularly attractive women, one wonders if they could be seeking a revival of their most attention-getting years when they were prom queens, most popular girls in school, etc.
For additional insight into more possible reasons for the unacceptable behavior of these women, we turned to Antonia Hall, a psychologist, relationship expert, and author of The Ultimate Guide to a Multi-Orgasmic Life. When asked about her thoughts regarding what might be the main driving force in these cases, Ms. Hall, responded, “The driving force in these cases can vary. Often times the teacher has a fundamental piece missing in her life and finds that one of her students helps to alleviate that need. Perhaps she's lonely, bored, lacks self-esteem, or she feels ignored by her husband. Most of a teacher's day is spent with students, and a small flirtation can spark into chatting with a student, which leads to more. The ease of communicating through social media and texts has opened up a world of inappropriate behaviors that feel oddly detached and safe to the people using them." She also made clear that engaging with under-aged minors is pedophilia and it's never ok.
Ms. Hall commented that she's read of varying cases where women didn't seem to realize that it was wrong while others did. Part of the appeal can be doing something you know you're not supposed to be doing. When a teacher is in her early twenties, not far out of high school herself, she might not see why the young student couldn't be her boyfriend!
When questioned whether some of these women had been abused themselves, Ms. Hall said that was often the case, and then the victim becomes the abuser.
"An illicit affair began when Stephanie Peterson texted nude photos of herself to a 14-year-old former student of hers who later became her teacher's aide." Photo Courtesy of Crimeonline
Ironically, we do not search deeply for reasons when a male is a perpetrator because it is considered a natural function of the male anatomy, although his actions are often perceived as much more vile. When the “victim" is a male, it is viewed by many as much less harmful to his psyche. When these stories were published on the Internet, many of the comments were congratulating the victim and saying they only wish they had one of those teachers when they were growing up. When learning that a fellow student is having sex with a teacher, the news is often met with a “high five." Even many male adults consider it a “rite of passage."
These women have done more than flout cultural norms; they have broken the law as well as the trust they were given to put the welfare of their students first. Sure, being a “cougar" can be a pretty enviable role for some women, but their targets are just little “cubs" themselves. This cannot be romanticized or compared with some celebrity couples where the wife is much older than the husband. We're talking about boys 14, 15 and 16, and, yes, some targets as cringe-worthy as 12.
The Legal Double Standard
Ms. Hall also suggested that our culture has long perpetuated specific ideas about the proper age combinations of couples. It has always been generally more acceptable to see an older man with a much younger woman than the reverse.
This belief has often permeated our legal system, creating a gender-based double standard for prosecution and sentencing of rape offenders.
First, and perhaps most telling, is the fact that until 2013 the legal definition of rape was “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will." This law was restructured to include a broader definition of rape, wherein a woman may be identified as a rapist.
In the cases we're referring to, these acts are sometimes charged as statutory rape; that is, where one of the participants is legally unable to make a binding decision to participate in sexual activity because of age, mental disability, or other factors. State laws have differing age requirements regarding statutory rape, and some states hand out stricter sentences to teachers and other school professionals because they have supervisory or disciplinary power over their victims. Although gender is no longer written into this law, in the past it obviously influenced these proceedings.
While there currently is no clear database covering these statistics, from anecdotal information it appears that women have often been given lighter sentences for very similar charges. Women were often given suspended sentences while male teachers often received the maximum sentences allows. It was well known that women often received only “a slap on the wrist." This is now changing, perhaps because there are more women judges, police officers, and attorneys. While it may seem counter-intuitive for them to push for sterner sentencing for women than have been previously meted out, it is because the lighter sentences served to preserve the myth that females are more defenseless to emotional, physical and social harm resulting from these inappropriate sexual encounters. The very idea of females as sexual offenders challenges cultural norms. Patriarchal protection as part of the law again perpetuates this perception.
Two interesting perspectives may be inferred from the two following comments:
When Erica Ann Ginnetti was being sentenced for having sex with a student, the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania Judge, Garrett D. Page, actually asked, “What young man would not jump on that candy?"
In Michigan, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Nanci Grant sentenced Spanish teacher Kathryn Ronk six to 15 years in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old student. She stated that to have a continuing double standard is unacceptable. She said the law does not have a double standard and is clearly on point when it recognizes that children of both sexes are developing human beings. Judge Grant pointed out that this teacher was a person with power and influence over the child.
Another interesting development in this teacher-student sex issue is the State of New Jersey's April 2018 passage of a law that empowers school administrators to warn other districts about teachers accused of sexual abuse, potentially stopping them from getting new teaching jobs. While not foolproof, this law should mitigate the cycle known as “passing the trash," in which teachers accused of misconduct move to a new school district while their former employer stays silent. Of course, this law's effectiveness will depend on the honesty of the administrators and whether they will reach out to other districts.
After working on this article, it has become very clear why it was mandatory for me to attend a course on “Protecting Our Children" before I began my volunteer work at an elementary school this past fall. We learned how to avoid the possibility or even appearance of any misconduct and how to recognize possible offenders working alongside us. At the time, I thought the danger was exaggerated. Obviously, it wasn't!
"Sh*t!" my daughter exclaimed as she dropped her iPad to the floor. A little bit of context; my daughter Victoria absolutely loves her iPad. And as I watched her bemoan the possible destruction of her favorite device, I thought to myself, "If I were in her position, I'd probably say the exact same thing."
In the Rastegar family, a word is only a bad word if used improperly. This is a concept that has almost become a family motto. Because in our household, we do things a little differently. To put it frankly, our practices are a little unconventional. Completely safe, one hundred percent responsible- but sure, a little unconventional.
And that's because my husband Ari and I have always felt akin in one major life philosophy; we want to live our lives our way. We have dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of questioning the world around us. And it's that philosophy that has led us to some unbelievable discoveries, especially when it comes to parenting.
Ari was an English major. And if there's one thing that can be said about English majors, it's that they can be big-time sticklers for the rules. But Ari also thinks outside of the box. And here's where these two characteristics meet. Ari was always allowed to curse as a child, but only if the word fit an appropriate and relevant context. This idea came from Ari's father (his mother would have never taken to this concept), and I think this strange practice really molded him into the person he is today.
But it wasn't long after we met that I discovered this fun piece of Ari Rastegar history, and I got to drop a pretty awesome truth bomb on Ari. My parents let me do the same exact thing…
Not only was I allowed to curse as a child, but I was also given a fair amount of freedom to do as I wanted. And the results of this may surprise you. You see, despite the lack of heavy regulating and disciplining from my parents, I was the model child. Straight A's, always came home for curfew, really never got into any significant trouble- that was me. Not trying to toot my own horn here, but it's important for the argument. And don't get the wrong impression, it's not like I walked around cursing like a sailor.
Perhaps I was allowed to curse whenever I wanted, but that didn't mean I did.
And this is where we get to the amazing power of this parenting philosophy. In my experience, by allowing my own children to curse, I have found that their ability to self-regulate has developed in an outstanding fashion. Over the past few years, Victoria and Kingston have built an unbelievable amount of discipline. And that's because our decision to allow them to curse does not come without significant ground rules. Cursing must occur under a precise and suitable context, it must be done around appropriate company, and the privilege cannot be overused. By following these guidelines, Victoria and Kingston are cultivating an understanding of moderation, and at a very early age are building a social awareness about when and where certain types of language are appropriate. And ultimately, Victoria and Kingston are displaying the same phenomenon present during my childhood. Their actual instances of cursing are extremely low.
And beneath this parenting strategy is a deeper philosophy. Ari and I first and foremost look at parenting as educators. It is not our job to dictate who our children will be, how they shall behave, and what their future should look like.
We are not dictators; we are not imposing our will on them. They are autonomous beings. Their future is in their hands, and theirs alone.
Rather, we view it as our mission to show our children what the many possibilities of the world are and prepare them for the litany of experiences and challenges they will face as they develop into adulthood. Now, when Victoria and Kingston come across any roadblocks, they have not only the tools but the confidence to handle these tensions with pride, independence, and knowledge.
And we have found that cursing is an amazing place to begin this relationship as educators. By allowing our children to curse, and gently guiding them towards the appropriate use of this privilege, we are setting a groundwork of communication that will eventually pay dividends as our children grow curious of less benign temptations; sex, drugs, alcohol. There is no fear, no need to slink behind our backs, but rather an open door where any and all communication is rewarded with gentle attention and helpful wisdom.
The home is a sacred place, and honesty and communication must be its foundation. Children often lack an ability to communicate their exact feelings. Whether out of discomfort, fear, or the emotional messiness of adolescence, children can often be less than transparent. Building a place of refuge where our children feel safe enough to disclose their innermost feelings and troubles is, therefore, an utmost priority in shepherding their future. Ari and I have come across instances where our children may have been less than truthful with a teacher, or authority figure simply because they did not feel comfortable disclosing what was really going on. But with us, they know that honesty is not only appreciated but rewarded and incentivized. This allows us to protect them at every turn, guard them against destructive situations, and help guide and problem solve, fully equipped with the facts of their situation.
And as crazy as it all sounds- I really believe in my heart that the catalogue of positive outcomes described above truly does stem from our decision to allow Victoria and Kingston to curse freely.
I know this won't sit well with every parent out there. And like so many things in life, I don't advocate this approach for all situations. In our context, this decision has more than paid itself off. In another, it may exacerbate pre-existing challenges and prove to be only a detriment to your own family's goals.
As the leader of your household, this is something that you and you alone must decide upon with intentionality and wisdom.
Ultimately, Ari and I want to be the kind of people our children genuinely want to be around. Were we not their parents, I would hope that Victoria and Kingston would organically find us interesting, warm, kind, funny, all the things we aspire to be for them each and every day.
We've let our children fly free, and fly they have. They are amazing people. One day, when they leave the confines of our home, they will become amazing adults. And hopefully, some of the little life lessons and eccentric parenting practices we imparted upon them will serve as a support for their future happiness and success.