Debra LaFave, teacher convicted of having sex with 14-year-old boy student
In the wake of one the most publicized stories of a female teacher sexually abusing an underage student, the case of the beautiful Debra LaFave, MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer asked a psychologist TV guest “why someone who looks like a living Barbie Doll would need to have sex with a young kid.”
LaFave was 23 years old in 2004 when it was discovered that she had been having sex with her student, a 14-year-old boy.
At the time, LaFave became a media sensation for her stunning good looks and the story – a woman seeking the sexual attention of a barely adolescent boy – that so crossed up society’s expectations of who sex offenders are and what they look like.
National statistics, however, demonstrate that LaFave’s case is far from unusual.
According to a major 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education – the most authoritative investigation to date – nearly 10 percent of U.S. public school students have been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by school employees, and in those cases, 40 percent of the perpetrators were women.
Titled “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature” by Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Charol Shakeshaft, the report brought to light staggering statistics.
Compare the numbers with the much-publicized Catholic Church scandal.
A study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded 10,667 young people were sexually mistreated by priests between 1950 and 2002.
Shakeshaft’s study, however, estimates that roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee between 1991 and 2000 alone.
If female employees are responsible for 40 percent of those crimes, that means America could be facing an average of more than 11,000 instances of women abusing students in school each year – in other words, more cases in one year than were reported in 50 years of Catholic priest abuse.
Why would so many trusted teachers, even young, vibrant, beautiful women like Debra LaFave, target children for sexual abuse?
WND spoke with some of the nation’s leading experts in the field – including Shakeshaft – for answers to why female teachers would prey on boys and what can be done about it.
Teacher outside, teenager inside
“There’s a range of reasons these women are abusing boys,” Shakeshaft told WND, “not just one.”
“One of the reasons is because they can, because we haven’t done in schools what we need to do to stop this from happening,” Shakeshaft said. “A second reason is because they are in power positions, and they abuse power just as males abuse power.”
Shakeshaft told WND, however, that most of the women who aren’t hardened predators – including perplexing cases like LaFave’s, where a woman may only grow attached to one boy and wouldn’t dream of sexually abusing others – rationalize their romantic fixation because, inside, the teacher feels like a teenager herself.
“Most of these people who cross boundaries have arrested emotional development,” Shakeshaft said. “They’re putting themselves into the same peer group as their students.
“What they say is, ‘I think this person is just the same as I am,’” Shakeshaft explained. “Though they wouldn’t say it out loud, they rationalize that the child is really more like a 40-year-old, or that that they are really more like a teenager.”
In a 2006 interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, LaFave demonstrated Shakeshaft’s explanation.
“The only way that I can describe that is that I felt that I was a peer of theirs,” LaFave confessed. “I was just thinking of it as being a young girl who just got caught with her boyfriend.”
When played a recording of a phone call LaFave made to her student, she acknowledged of her giggling adolescent demeanor: “That sounds so childish. … That’s not something an adult would say.”
Gary Schoener, executive director of the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis and one of the nation’s foremost pioneers in working with sex offenders, agrees that many of these teachers see themselves as peers with the teens they abuse, but warns there may be other factors as well.
How she sees him
“These cases have a lot of variety to them,” Schoener told WND. “The women are not all the same, and they don’t all fit a pattern.”
Schoener is a licensed psychologist who has worked for decades with teachers who sexually abuse their students. Along with former WICC Clinic Director John Gonsiorek, Schoener developed one of the first and most widely respected tools for assessing professionals – therapists, clergy, teachers and others – caught in sexual misconduct.
“What does the woman see in the boy?” Schoener pondered. “Obviously you have some where [the students] are 17 years old and they’re mature for their age, at least physically, and you can more readily see how somebody could develop fantasies.
“But then when you get the 14-year-old boy who is immature, why did this woman who was married, who was not known to have marital problems, who had kids, why would she go in this direction?” Schoener asked.
“Most of these women don’t know the answer,” Schoener explained. “But if you ask them what they’re feeling, they would say, ‘This kid is the most honest person I’ve met in my life. He’s much more honest than adult males.’ What you hear a lot from women is very similar to what you hear from men who prefer girls: that they’re pure, that they’re innocent.”
Schoener explained that the teachers exhibit thoughts and patterns very similar to a psychological fallacy called counter-transference, which is when a caregiver in authority – such as a therapist or a teacher – connects with some virtue in the subject, but then distorts that into a romanticized idealization based more on the caregiver’s own projection than on reality.
“They absolutely romanticize this young kid,” Schoener said, “and somehow in their mind make him into this sensitive, caring, thoughtful, honest, insightful ideal.”
But, Schoener explained, “Each of these things they’re describing and they feel very strongly are not things that could have come from actual experience with the kid. … These are gut feelings. In this context of the teacher-student relationship, somehow the kid becomes bigger than life, and they react to him like their great, fantasied love.”
Scheoner told WND that the one factor he sees in the vast majority of cases where female teachers abuse boys is fantasy about the student’s character that does not match what others observe.
“It is very much driven by emotional connection, rather than sexual drive,” Schoener said. “In a huge number of the cases we’ve seen – not all, some are largely sexual – the thing was driven by a fantasy where the kid was seen as this wonderful human being and age ceased to matter. In fact, reality ceased to matter.”
“The sexual turn-on is not the first thing that occurs,” Schoener summarized. “It begins with an emotional fixation on a kid. After that, chances they take don’t matter any more. They risk careers. They do crazy things like planning on how they’ll live together after the wedding. They get in trouble for the sex, but it started with irrational feelings and thoughts.”
What’s the harm?
When LaFave’s story broke in the news, as has happened with other stories of attractive teachers sexually abusing their male students, some questioned whether the boys were truly harmed. After all, it was argued, many teenage boys would see the wooing of a beautiful woman as a good thing, regardless of her age.
Following another publicized case of teacher abuse, Steven B. Blum, a consulting psychologist to a sex offender program in Nebraska, explained teenage boys don’t always see the harm initially.
“Generally the male doesn’t feel victimized,” Blum told the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of teenage boys would see that as their lucky day.”
But the 16-year-old victim of Margaret De Barraicua, a 30-year-old California teacher who pleaded guilty to four counts of statutory rape, did not consider it his “lucky day.”
“I’m not the same boy,” the student said in a letter read in court in Sacramento. “At school I became the center of attention. Everyone knew my name.” The boy was so traumatized, his mother wrote in a letter read in court, that “his hair is falling out.”
The father of a Colorado boy molested by Silvia Johnson – who held drug-alcohol-and-sex parties at her home with teenaged schoolboys to be “cool” – told the court the 40-year-old woman “took away my best friend, my hunting buddy. I can’t have him back now. He is gone.”
Experts agree that, in time, even willing teenage boys coaxed into sex by their authority figures, no matter how attractive, exhibit abused child symptoms.
“Boys and girls who are put in these situations aren’t emotionally ready to deal with all the complexities of these relationships,” Shakeshaft told WND.
“The lasting effect is very similar to the effects on females: they don’t trust people, they have trouble forming intimate relationships, they often feel used, exploited, dirty, ashamed,” Shakeshaft explained. “And that often leads to dysfunction in other areas – drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and particularly inability to have intimate relationships.”
Dr. Richard B. Gartner, a leading expert and specialist in field of treating men with history of sexual abuse, writes in a commentary on his website, “Many sexually abused boys grow up distrustful, considering people dishonest, malevolent, and undependable. They often become frightened of emotional connection and isolate themselves.”
“Confusing affection with abuse, desire with tenderness,” Gartner writes, “sexually abused boys often become men who have difficulty distinguishing among sex, love, nurturance, affection, and abuse. They may experience friendly interpersonal approaches as seductive and manipulative. On the other hand, they may not notice when exploitative demands are made on them – they’ve learned to see these as normal and acceptable.”
Shakeshaft told WND, “Historically, if a boy mentioned it, it was not seen as abuse, it was seen as, ‘You should be so lucky.’ I think that’s changing. I think we’re seeing a change in that double standard; I think we’re seeing people understanding that the issues are the same whether it’s a male or a female.”
What can be done?
The answer to stopping teachers who prey on their students sexually may be as complex as the answer to what’s causing it.
For Shakeshaft, who specializes in educational leadership, the answer is teaching people to spot the warning signs.
“A lot of teachers, if they understood the patterns, would be able to identify them in their colleagues,” Shakeshaft told WND. “We hear from other teachers, ‘I always suspected something, I was always uncomfortable – I just wasn’t sure.’ What they didn’t have was that body of knowledge that would have led them to identify what was going on.”
Shakeshaft warned that fixated predators may be too sly to spot, but with close supervision and a swift, knowledgeable response, the education community may be able to help teachers who are about to cross the line.
“If we keep aware of what these signals are,” Shakeshaft said, “we are more likely to be able to intervene and stop them.”
Schoener, however, believes the best defense may come from parents.
“I don’t think from the teacher end it’s very easy to spot,” Schoener told WND. Instead, he suggested parents be watchful of how much interchange their children are having with school officials.
“The first warning sign is a kid spending a lot of private time with the teacher,” Schoener said. “The second: text messaging and emails that go back and forth. At the grade school, junior high, high school level, most teachers are discouraged from a lot of Internet interaction. Frequent emailing and text messaging are questionable. It would be a rare occasion where a teacher would need to be in that level of contact with a student.”
Schoener also warned that parents be clear on the purpose and the chaperoning of all field trips and events outside of school.
Finally, Schoener said, the boundaries of a teacher’s role need to be clearly set.
“A teacher’s job is not to counsel students past a point,” Schoener explained. “Even if the kid really needs help and it’s legitimate counseling, it’s rare that a teacher should be doing a lot of counseling. That’s the school counselor’s job. If there are a lot of private meetings, you have to ask yourself what’s going on.”
But for David Kupelian, WND’s managing editor and author of “The Marketing of Evil,” the ultimate answer – beyond the necessary watching for warning signs – is rooted in a society that has lost its spiritual moorings.
In an award-winning 2006 Whistleblower article, Kupelian wrote, “Without the understanding of our spiritual origin and destiny – of who we are and what purpose our maker intended for us – we can’t possibly understand sex and its intended role in our lives. Instead, all we have driving us are the desires, physical and emotional ‘needs,’ cravings and compulsions we find welling up from within us.”
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In her interview with WND, Shakeshaft bolstered Kupelian’s point.
“Part of the problem is bad judgment; part of it is narcissistic behavior, in other words, ‘What I want I should get,’” Shakeshaft said.
“The focus here for [these teachers] is that they’re looking out for their own needs and not the needs of their kids,” Shakeshaft said. “What they’re interested in is getting what they want, not doing what they need to do to make sure the students they have are safe. The common denominator is focus on self, focus on their own needs, focus on their own desires.”
“That is America today,” Kupelian wrote. “In what was once the finest and most robust expression of Western Judeo-Christian civilization and the core values underlying it, most of us, too, have forgotten. … Forgotten the simple, intuitive understanding of right and wrong that we grasped effortlessly when we were innocent children, but which we were later intimidated or seduced into doubting – and abandoning. Forgotten the core truth about man’s condition – that he is in reality a ‘fallen’ being, ‘born in sin,’ and that his sexual urges must be channeled into marriage.”
Kupelian concluded of all the reasons female teachers seek sexual or romantic gratification in children, the largest contributing factor may be a secularized society that has lost a sound basis for teaching both morality and the self-control to exercise it.
“An even more important factor in this sexual-predator epidemic is the fact that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ just aren’t real to most of us anymore,” Kupelian wrote. “Even if [a female teacher] was attracted sexually to a child, for whatever reasons, it’s still wrong to have sex with a 13-year-old. And knowing something is wrong is enough reason not to do it – even if part of us wants to.”