Florida Epidemic: Teachers Sleeping with Students

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Maria Guzman Hernandez

If you're the parent of a teenage 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; the 32-year-old St. Petersburg teacher collared in March for allegedly "sexting" nude pictures of herself to an eighth-grade boy; or the 45-year-old teacher at a private Christian academy in South Daytona who was 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 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 acts of 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. (See the top 10 crime stories of 2008.)

But parents and prosecutors alike are nonetheless asking why the female version of pedagogue perversion seems more common on their peninsula compared with 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. (In a controversial decision, a judge did not make her serve prison time.) "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 in the apartment he shared with his mother (who herself is now under investigation for allowing the abuse to occur).

After the principal at Our Lady of Charity (a private Catholic school that is not formally affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church) heard 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." Today's kids, as the media have 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, whom 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 Lafave 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. (Read about the notorious Mary K. Letourneau teacher-student affair.)

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 (SESAME) 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? (California also has a high rate of teacher sexual misconduct.) Or are Floridians simply reporting more cases like Hernandez's? It is a crime in Florida, as in most states, not to report such cases, 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 like more acceptable behavior in their eyes — especially when they see that offenders like Lafave get relatively light sentences. (That might be changing, however: a Florida judge recently slapped a two-year prison term on a 28-year-old female teacher in Pensacola convicted of unlawful sexual activity with a 15-year-old male student.)

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 have complained that school 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 have an obligation to help teachers who are themselves victims of bogus accusations, which is 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. (Jacksonville alone saw two female teachers arrested last month.) 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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