Aside from parents, few people spend as much time — and have as much influence — on children as teachers. Grandparents, yes, play an important role by the very nature of the relationship, and siblings and friends inspire and impact as well. But teachers are authority figures that hold sway during the most formative years of a child’s development.
So it’s always with alarm, and a gutful of anger, that I digest any news about teachers who have gone off the rail. The latest incident involves a 27-year-old teacher in Texas who’s accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old. I know, I know, many of you will say that 17 is old enough, that 17 understands responsibilities and consequences, that 17 and sex aren’t mutually exclusive. A few might even snicker at the fact that a beautiful teacher preyed on an apparently consenting teen.
Stop with those excuses right now.
Sarah Madden Fowlkes has been charged with having an improper relationship with a student at Lockhart High, 35 miles from Austin. As if this weren’t bad enough, Fowlkes smiled for her jailhouse mug, prompting a reporter to write that she seemed to be "posing for a new Facebook profile photo."
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The teacher’s cluelessness about the gravity of the offense was such that she made international headlines, in spite of her attorney’s claim that that she was grinning from ear-to-ear because she was innocent. (You can’t make this stuff up!)
Fowlkes, it is important to clarify, is innocent until proven guilty, but she’s hardly alone in the growing list of female teachers accused of not keeping their hands off their students. While male teachers charged with sex abuse of students are more common, it still feels as if there is an epidemic of female pedophiles in the classroom — or maybe we in the media simply are reporting it more often.
Consider this less-than-comprehensive list of women who have faced sex abuse charges of their students: In Louisiana, two female teachers were arrested on one count of "carnal knowledge of a juvenile" for allegedly having sex with the same male student. In New Jersey, a teacher was arrested for having sex in her car on school grounds with five male high school students. And a Connecticut educator was arrested for having sex with an 18-year-old male student and then allegedly threatening to fail him if he didn’t continue the affair.
Florida seems to have more than its fair share of abusive female educators. One Florida teacher is serving time after admitting to having sex with a student 20 to 30 times in her truck. Another was accused of having sexual relations with a 14-year-old and a third sexted nude pictures of herself to an eighth-grade boy. The most infamous Florida case involved middle school teacher and former bikini model Debbie Lafave who admitted to having sex with her 14-year-old student.
As far back as 2009, Time magazine probed into this Florida sickness, wondering if it was "somehow egged on by the state's more sexually relaxed atmosphere, with its sultry climate and scantily clad beach culture."
Grown women chasing after pubescent boys is a difficult and disturbing scene to imagine, but just as troubling are the comments from the flakes who think that a young boy’s sexual initiation by a female teacher is something to be envied. It’s not. This is victimization. This is abuse. This is rape. And it is particularly unnerving when the horror is committed by the very people trusted by parents to guide their children. Preying on someone who is young and vulnerable is never, ever right, regardless of age, gender or circumstance.
And it’s certainly nothing to smile about.