If you’re the parent of a teen-aged boy in Florida, you probably muttered
“not again” while reading your morning newspaper this week. There on the
front page was yet another case of an adult female teacher being arrested
for admitting to having had sex with an underage male student. This time
the alleged perp was Maria Guzman Hernandez, a 32-year-old instructor at the
private Our Lady of Charity school in Hialeah; her victim was 15. But she just as well
could have been the 34-year-old Jacksonville public-school science teacher
arrested last month for allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old student,
once in her SUV; or the 32-year-old St. Petersburg teacher collared in March
for allegedly “sexting” nude pictures of herself to an 8th-grade boy; or the
45-year-old teacher at a private Christian academy in South Daytona arrested
days before for allegedly having sex with a boy from her class in various
Daytona Beach hotels.
Other female teachers in Florida have been booked for the same crime this year and scores of others have also been arrested or disciplined in the past few years for sexual misconduct with students, according to a recent investigation by the Orlando Sentinel, which noted the problem is rising in the state “among female educators in particular.” Florida, of course, is hardly the only state where female teachers have been nabbed for preying on boys. And nationwide, male teachers still commit far more sexual misconduct than females. A 2004 Education Department study found that about 10% of the nation’s 50 million public-school students had experienced some kind of improper sexual attention from teachers and other school employees; and a 2007 Associated Press report indicated that men were involved almost 90% of the time. What’s more, even in Florida those offenders are a small fraction of the state’s more than 200,000 public and private school teachers.
But parents and prosecutors alike are nonetheless asking why the female version of pedagogue perversion seems more common on their peninsula compared to other places. “It certainly seems more prevalent, although we can’t say for sure if it’s worse than other large states,” says Michael Sinacore, the
Hillsborough County assistant state attorney who, in 2005, prosecuted one of
Florida’s most high-profile cases, that of Tampa middle-school teacher Debra
Lafave, a blond siren who pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious behavior
after being charged with having sex with a 14-year-old boy. “None of us can
really say why at this point.”
Whatever the reason, the crime appears to be getting more cavalier in the
Sunshine State. According to police in Hialeah, a mostly Cuban-American
enclave adjoining Miami, Hernandez had been having sex with the 15-year-old
boy since March, often right in the apartment he shared with his mother .
After the principal at Our Lady of Charity began hearing of the illicit
relationship last week, she reported it to the state’s Department of
Children and Family Services. Police questioned Hernandez last weekend after she returned from a trip to Disney World with the boy and she made a
taped confession, they say. She was charged with sexual battery on a minor,
akin to statutory rape, but has not yet been arraigned.
One theory for the growing number of cases like these, says Sinacore, is
what he calls “the more relaxed if not blurred boundary lines between
teachers and students as teachers try to communicate with kids in this day
and age.” Those kids, as the media have often reported recently, are far
less shy about innocent physical contact, like hugging, than their parents
were as teens. That can be exploited by any male pervert overseeing a
classroom. But it can also embolden predatory female teachers, who experts
say are often in emotionally needy states. “The trend with female offenders,
more than males, is that they have emotional turmoil going on in their
lives,” says Sinacore.
Lafave’s pregnant sister, for example, had been killed by a drunk driver
before she began hitting on a student; Hernandez is estranged from her
husband. Such problems certainly aren’t excuses for pedophilia; but they can
compel women like Lafave to seek out emotional comfort or a feeling of
control that they might not experience in relationships with adult men.
It doesn’t help that society already brings a double standard to these cases, the notion that somehow it isn’t as harmful for a boy to be seduced by a woman as it is for a girl to
have sex with a man. In fact, it’s not uncommon in the wake of news like
Hernandez’s arrest to hear morning radio jocks in Florida declare
congratulatory high-fives for the boys.
“This isn’t an ‘affair,’ it’s abuse,
and we have to shift that paradigm,” says Terri Miller, president of Stop
Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation in Nevada. “We
say, ‘Bully for the boy and his conquest of the geometry teacher,’ but that
makes it harder for boys to vocalize their victimization.” Indeed, studies by psychologists like Julie Hislop, author of the 2001 book Female Sex Offenders: What Therapists, Law Enforcement and Child Protective
Services Need to Know, note that boys who are sexually abused by women often
develop alcoholism, depression and their own sexual dysfunctions, including
rape, as men.
But why should Florida seem to be experiencing an especially high number of such cases Are those women, and for that matter the hormonally charged boys they target, somehow egged on by the state’s more sexually relaxed
atmosphere, with its sultry climate and scantily clad beach culture. Or are Floridians simply reporting more cases like Hernandez’s It is a crime in
Florida, as in most states, not to; but perhaps the tabloid publicity of the Lafave
case has prodded Sunshine State denizens to be more vigilant, to no longer be in denial about cases like these or take them so lightly.
And yet paradoxically, says Sinacore, it might also be engendering more
cases. As potential female predators see more and more headlines about
teachers like themselves bedding boys, it can seem more acceptable behavior
in their eyes especially when they see that offenders like Lafave get relatively light sentences.
Activists like Miller are calling for stricter hiring processes for teachers
the kind of psychological and polygraph testing, for example, that police
are subject to and they complain that schools boards and teachers unions have blocked legislative efforts to more effectively ferret out potential or actual abusers. But Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Teachers
Association, the state’s major teachers union, insists the group is doing
its part to attack the problem and raise teacher awareness. At the same
time, he points out, unions also have an obligation to help teachers who are
themselves victims of bogus accusations, also a problem. “There needs to be
an understanding,” says Pudlow, “that even when a false accusation hits the
newspapers, it can ruin a teaching career.”
True enough. But for the moment, Florida seems more concerned with the
growing number of valid complaints. So it’s no surprise that a Florida
congressman, U.S. Representative Adam Putnam, recently co-introduced a bill,
the Student Protection Act, to set up a scholastic version of the national
sex offender database and prevent teachers like Lafave from getting
classroom jobs in other districts or states. Whether or not the legislation
passes, it’s a sign of the emotional turmoil that women like her have
wrought in their communities.
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