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Saturday, April 29, 2000The teachers' pets
Dalliances between male teachers and female pupils are condemned, so why aren't we as appalled when the roles are reversed?
Francine Dube in Toronto and Nancy Moote in Sechelt, B.C.
TORONTO and SECHELT, B.C. - In the bleachers of the skateboard park behind Chatelech Secondary School in Sechelt, B.C., where students gather to smoke and gossip, there is sympathy for Heather Ingram, the pretty and popular teacher who made the career-ending mistake of falling in love with a pupil.
Heather Ingram is today living with her former student.
"If they have feelings for each other, if they're happy together, then they should let them be," says a girl who was a student in Ms. Ingram's class. "They're blowing it out of proportion," says one of the boys. "It's pretty stupid what she did. Sure, take away her teacher's licence, but not criminal charges."
Sechelt, population 8,000, is a small logging-town-turned-retirement haven on B.C.'s scenic Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver. Since October, when Ingram, 30, was suspended for having sex with a 17-year-old student, residents have been wrestling with a moral dilemma.
Male teachers having sex with young female students is a shameful, shocking breach of a power relationship that earns opprobrium and disgust from all corners of society. Yet for many people in Sechelt, an attractive young female teacher having a sexual relationship with a willing, albeit much younger male student, is something else again. Not acceptable, perhaps. But somehow different. The attitudes of Ms. Ingram's students on B.C.'s sunshine coast echo those of many in this small community.
Remarkably, Sechelt is not alone in confronting cases of female teachers involved with male students. There have been three high-profile cases in Canada since last fall in which female teachers have been found to be involved, or have been accused of being involved, in intimate liaisons with younger male students.
The Sechelt case is singular because of the degree of sympathy for Ms. Ingram, who has pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation and will be sentenced in May.
The boy has said he pursued her relentlessly, lied to her about his age and arranged to be alone with her in her house when they had their first sexual encounter. "The idea that she sexually exploited me is crazy," said the boy, now 18, who cannot be identified because he was then a minor. Even his mother has pleaded for leniency, describing Ms. Ingram as "a wonderful young woman...who has been a positive influence on my son."
Several parents have also written to the judge on Ms. Ingram's behalf, saying she is missed in the classroom. Michele Forrester, Ms. Ingram's tennis partner, wrote to the judge: "I have a 14-year-old son whom I would consider very fortunate to have Heather teach, as I know he would be given a thorough understanding and enjoyment of his studies."
The popular math, science and business teacher ended her 12-year common-law relationship with a man four years her senior for her young lover. She and the young man now live together. She works in the office of an environmental company and continues to live on the Sunshine Coast.
The case of Laura Glen Sclater, a Grade 7 and 8 teacher at Goodfellow Public School in Alcona Beach, south of Barrie, Ont., has elicited less sympathy.
Ms. Sclater traded sexually charged notes with a 13-year-old student over a three-month period ending in April, 1998. She called the boy "hottie." She signed them "Love, your woman." The relationship began when Ms. Sclater returned to work from maternity leave. It ended when the boy's mother found out what was going on.
Last October, the Ontario College of Teachers suspended Ms. Sclater's certificate. South Simcoe police also investigated, but after consultation with the local Crown attorney, did not lay charges. There was no evidence the two were sexually intimate.
In February, an Ontario court upheld her indefinite suspension from the classroom.
The most astonishing case of all came to light this week. A female teacher at a suburban high school in British Columbia is being investigated for allegations that she was sexually involved with as many as 15 male students, most of whom were members of the senior boys' volleyball team she coached.
Police are finding it a tough slog, though. None of the boys are complaining. "We have run into a lot of dead ends because many of the fellows we have interviewed do not consider themselves to be a victim," says Constable Mike Herchuk, an RCMP spokesman.
The official school position on teacher-student relationships is that there are no circumstances under which it is acceptable for a teacher to enter into a romantic relationship with a student. "Trust was broken between student and teacher," says Clifford Smith, the former superintendent of schools who made the decision to suspend Heather Ingram. "We need to get across the message that this is not an acceptable situation. And there's a strong contingent of parents in our community who think it is acceptable."
It seems that while ordinary people seem to regard these cases -- particularly Ms. Ingram's -- as something less serious than pedophilia, the "experts" are of a different view altogether.
Psychiatrists find it difficult to discuss such cases without calling it "abuse," although it appears that the teenager now living with Ms. Ingram in no way feels abused.
Dr. Pierre Assalian is a specialist in human sexuality at the Montreal General Hospital, a professor at McGill University and executive director of the Canadian Sex Research Forum, an organization of sex therapists, sex educators and sex researchers in Canada. He makes no bones about it: The effect on the "victim" is "devastating." Studies have repeatedly shown, he says, that victims of intergenerational sex suffer guilt, self-doubt, depression and have higher rates of suicide. They become unable to trust people in positions of authority.
The literature, however, is based on studies of girls who have been preyed upon by men. In fact, there is relatively little research into the effect on boys of sexual relationships with older women in positions of power.
"Far from feeling victimized by having been seduced into vaginal intercourse with an adult, boys may feel a sense of accomplishment," writes D.J. West, a British doctor and pschiatrist, in a paper called "Boys and Sexual Abuse," published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour in 1998. He observes that unbiased, detached scientific investigation of this issue is difficult because it is such an explosive topic. "The emotive terms adopted in professional discourse -- abuse, perpetrator, victim, survivor -- have reinforced this idea and introduced a tone of moral revulsion alien to scientific inquiry."
Alexander McKay, associate editor of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, puts it more bluntly. "People are petrified of this subject. Nobody wants to be put in the position of being accused of defending sexual offences against children."
In 1965, Stephen Vizinczey published In Praise of Older Women, an account of his affair with a 30-year-old woman when he was 13. Mr. Vizinczey, a Hungarian who emigrated to Canada in 1957, published the book himself. It became a best-seller and remains in print today.
Now living in England with his wife -- who is six years older -- he says he is appalled at the criminalization of relationships between older women and teenage boys. He does not approve of the teacher who wrote steamy letters to the 13-year-old in her class. He's not entirely comfortable with the fact that in the other two cases, the teenage boys in question were pupils of the older women. But he dismisses the idea that the boys will be scarred by their experiences.
"I think it's garbage. It's psychobabble from ignorant people -- experts without knowledge," he says.
North American teenagers are ignorant of the world because they are encouraged to relate only to their peers, Mr. Vizinczey believes. Older women have a civilizing impact on their young swains -- his first lover introduced him to the great works of French literature.
"I became a first-class student because I didn't spend my time masturbating -- this is what young men do, masturbate," says Mr. Vizinczey, who feels that masturbation damages boys by undermining their self-confidence and encouraging them to view sex as a solitary act. Indeed he blames masturbation for the dehumanizing and cruel ways that some men treat women.
He does not hold the same opinions of relationships between older men and younger women. Sex can be forced on young women but cannot be forced on young men, he says. To have sex, a young man must have an erection, and if he has an erection, he is aroused, says Mr. Vizinczey.
Yet there is no doubt that the behaviour of some of these women is deeply troubling.
Mary Kay LeTourneau ruined her life by having sex with a 13-year-old student in her Grade 6 class. She began mentoring Vili Fualaau when he was a student in her Grade 2 class in Seattle. The boy had extraordinary artistic ability, and Ms. LeTourneau encouraged this, introducing him to the piano and buying him art supplies.
"There was a bonding that was pretty instantaneous," she said. "But I didn't know what it meant. I felt that one day he might marry my daughter."
Instead, in 1996, when she was 34 and he was 13, and by then a student in her Grade 6 class, Ms. LeTourneau began an affair with Vili. She became pregnant with his child.
In November, 1997, she received a suspended sentence of 7 1/2 years for child rape. After Vili's mother said Ms. LeTourneau had been "punished enough," the judge ordered the former teacher to serve only six months of the sentence, providing she not contact the boy again. "I did something that I had no right to do," said Ms. LeTourneau outside court.
Three months later she was caught steaming up a parked car with Vili. She was pregnant with his second child. She is now serving her full sentence in a maximum-security prison. However, it is not clear from news reports whether there has been a falling out between Ms. LeTourneau and Vili, who were still expressing love for each other in February.
Ms. LeTourneau's former husband has since moved to Alaska with their four children.
There are also unsettling elements to the Heather Ingram story. According to information before the courts, she engaged in illicit drug use with the boy and had an earlier sexual relationship with another student -- an 18-year-old who was his friend.
Dr. Assalian says that a woman in her 30s who engages in a relationship with a teenage boy may suffer from a narcissistic need for admiration and validation.
Nationwide statistics on the incidence of sexual assaults on students by teachers are not available. Only Ontario and British Columbia have provincial colleges -- self-regulatory bodies for the teaching profession, which have the authority to grant and revoke licenses.
Since the Ontario College of Teachers was established in 1997, 26 teachers have had their licences revoked -- 22 for sexual abuse of students. All were men. Between April, 1998, and April, 1999, the British Columbia college dealt with 15 cases of teachers accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with students. It does not break them down by the gender, but more than 90% of the offenders were male, according to a spokesman.
An Ontario provincial report on the issue, released earlier this month, concluded that the incidence of sexual abuse of students by teachers is likely much highher than reported. It pointed out that the education community even has a name for the practice of allowing sexual predators to quietly move on to other schools after complaints are raised. It is called "passing the trash."
Dr. Paul Fedoroff is a sexual abuse expert at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He believes relationships between older women and boys are an abuse of power.
Most teachers, he says, understand that students tend to idealize them, and discourage the inappropriate feelings that can arise, he says. "It's artificial. It's kind of a fantasy and not reality," he says. "A student will think, 'This teacher is the most beautiful person in the world, and she's kind to me and she knows everything.' The fact is, she isn't. She's the teacher."
The likelihood that a 15-year-old would be interested in a 30-year-old who isn't a teacher is more remote; attraction to a teacher is based on the power she holds, he says. He also believes that engaging in such relationships robs students of part of their youth, cutting them off from an important part of their development. The abuse of trust goes beyond the relationship between the teacher and the student, Dr. Fedoroff points out. Parents entrust their children to teachers as teachers, not sexual partners.
When a teacher is forced to resign as a result of having an affair with a student, the classroom might be left in chaos until a suitable replacement is found. And the students left behind must deal with the idea that their teachers -- at least some of them -- may regard them not as pupils, but as potential sexual partners.
Heather Ingram will be sentenced May 29 in Vancouver. Her case may enjoy some support in the community of 8,000, but not from everyone.
"I don't know which is worse -- a teacher exploiting a student or the fact that some students condone it," wrote Steve Pond to the editor of the Coast Independent. newspaper.
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