Commentary Violence

When Teachers Sleep With Students, the Student Is Always the Victim

Martha Kempner

It seems like every week, there's another story in the news about a teacher having sexual contact with a student. Though the circumstances of each case are different, one thing should be clear to us: The young people involved are never at fault.

It seems like every week, there’s another story in the news about a teacher having sexual contact with a student (or students). In the last few months alone, a teacher in Blount County, Alabama, was arrested for having sexual contact and sexting with three students; a substitute in a Washington, D.C., charter school was fired on her very first day for a sexual encounter with a student; a gym teacher at a Catholic high school in New York City was charged with 30 counts of statutory rape; a Texas teacher pleaded guilty to having an inappropriate relationship when she gave a student a lap dance for his 15th birthday; and residents of my own hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey, were shocked when an English teacher who’d been at the high school for more than nine years was arrested for having sexual contact with three 15-year-old students.

Though the circumstances of each case are different, one thing should be clear to us: The young people involved are never at fault. The teachers aren’t just adults; they’re people in positions of power, who are abusing their duty to take care of the students in their classes. Yet this is often not the message we hear when these cases hit the courts or the media. Sometimes media outlets and other members of the public blame the victim. Sometimes—especially when the teacher is female and the students are male—we suggest that there is no victim at all.

This week, a lawyer in a Californian civil suit from 2013 suggested in a radio interview that in his case, in which a middle school math teacher had a relationship with his student, the student herself—who was 13 in 2010, when their relationship began—was at least partially responsible. Though this seems outrageous, I see it as another example of our distorted thinking about student-teacher sex.

The teacher, Elkis Hermida, was ultimately arrested, tried, and convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor in June 2011. He was sentenced to three years in jail and had to register as a sex offender. Once the criminal case had concluded, the young woman’s guardian filed a civil suit against the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her attorney suggested that administrators did not adequately supervise Hermida, and that, based on his behavior toward other students in the school, they should have known that he was acting inappropriately. The suit ultimately argued that the district’s negligence had led to the sexual abuse.

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The lawyer for the district, Keith Wyatt, revealed in his radio interview this week that he had defended his client by suggesting that the girl was partly at fault. He noted that the student communicated with the then 28-year-old teacher through MySpace and sexual text messages, and that she purposefully visited him during the day to “engage in kissing” and sometimes oral sex or intercourse. He also argued that the student had been complicit in keeping the relationship a secret, including lying to her guardians to meet him in motel rooms. Based on these facts, the school district’s counsel argued that the teen was comparatively negligent for being abused by her teacher because she was not forced to have sexual relations with him—in other words, that she had supposedly consented to what had, in reality, been abuse. In addition, the trial court allowed the district’s lawyer to present evidence regarding the sexual history of the teenage student.

Ultimately, the jury ruled that the school district had not been negligent. It is impossible to know just how much of their decision was based on the court’s victim-blaming, but it is disheartening to know that this kind of reasoning was allowed in court at all.

In his interview on Southern California local public radio station KPCC, Wyatt said, “She lied to her mother so she could have sex with her teacher. … She went to a motel in which she engaged in voluntary consensual sex with her teacher. Why shouldn’t she be responsible for that?”

Wyatt has since apologized, saying his comments were “ill-thought out and poorly articulated,” and as of Friday, the district severed relations with him. It continues to work with his law firm.

Still, I’d like to answer the question he posed to KPCC, because I don’t think we say it enough: She is not responsible because she is a kid. She is not responsible because Hermida is an adult. She is not responsible because Hermida was in position of power and authority. She is not responsible not matter what she did or what she said. And, just as her prior sexual behavior would have no place in any other rape case, it has no place here.  

Adults in positions of authority are also in a position to manipulate young people—whether it is by offering them advantages in exchange for sexual activity, or simply by paying extra attention to them and making them feel special. The young woman in this case may have agreed to meet her teacher in a hotel room or give him oral sex in classroom, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for true consent. It is not possible for a relationship in which one person has power over the other to be truly consensual. Their interaction was, by its very nature, imbalanced and exploitative.

This goes for all relationships between teachers and young students, including those in which the teacher is female and the student male. Such cases seem to get wider news coverage than when gender roles are reversed—especially if the teacher in question is young and attractive. And more often than not, there’s an underlying assumption in the news that the boys involved weren’t victims, and in fact that they got lucky.

Take the story that broke in Kenner, Louisiana, in October. Two female teachers, one 24 and the other 32, were arrested for having threesomes with a 17-year-old male student. The student bragged about his encounters, some of which were videotaped, and told the police the relationship was consensual. Commentators on the internet apparently believed him. The headline of a piece on Daily Banter may say it all: “Oh for God’s Sake, Do NOT Call the Kid Who Had a Threesome with Two Female Teachers a ‘Victim.’”

It’s true that he may not feel like a victim in the traditional sense; the 14-year-old girl mentioned earlier might not either. He may even feel like a champion. But that doesn’t mean that the relationship was healthy or that he was not exploited. And it doesn’t mean that the relationship didn’t do damage.

Richard Gartner, a New York psychologist and author of Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse, spoke to the Associated Press for a 2007 article on teacher-student sex. “A boy is likely, with a female teacher, to claim that it wasn’t a problem, it wasn’t molestation, it wasn’t abuse, he wasn’t hurt by it,” he said, adding, “To say that you are a victim and particularly a sexual victim, for many boys and men, is to say that you’re not entirely a man.”

This does not, however, mean that these boys emerge unscathed. Gartner reports that they may not recognize the damage caused by the abuse until much later in life, but that male victims often report addictive behavior and compulsive disorders. Moreover, victims of both genders often end up with relationships framed in terms of power and control, not affection.

I cannot and will never understand why a teacher would want to have a sexual relationship with a young student. I don’t know if it’s a deliberate attempt to abuse power, a false sense that their students are their peers, an ego boost, or just some catastrophically bad judgment.

Let us just remember that it is never appropriate for a teacher to sleep with a young student, and that when this does happen the teacher—an adult in a position of power—is always at fault. The student, regardless of gender, is always the victim.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify the hometown of the teachers in one of the cases.

News Law and Policy

No Need to Block Bathroom Access for Transgender Student, Attorneys Tell Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A transgender student in Virginia sued the local school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity was unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing transgender student Gavin Grimm told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that there was no reason to block a lower court order guaranteeing Grimm access to school restrooms that align with his gender identity while Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board proceeds.

Grimm in 2015 sued the school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity—thus separating transgender students from their peers—was unconstitutional. Attorneys representing Grimm argued that the policy violates the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

A lower district court ruled the school board’s policy did not violate Grimm’s rights. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, reversing that decision and sending the case back to the lower court, which then blocked the school district from enforcing its policy while Grimm’s case proceeds.

In response, the school board notified the Fourth Circuit of its intent to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court and requested the appellate court stay its order granting Grimm access to bathrooms aligned with his gender identity—a decision the Fourth Circuit granted in June.

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The school board then asked the Roberts Court to issue an emergency stay of the lower court decision blocking its bathroom policy while the Court considers taking Grimm’s case.

Grimm’s attorneys argue there is no basis for the Roberts Court to grant the emergency stay requested by the school board. The board has “utterly failed to demonstrate that it will suffer irreparable harm” if Grimm is allowed to use the boys’ restroom at Gloucester High School while the Roberts Court considers stepping into the case at all, according to Grimm’s attorneys.

Attorneys for the school board filed their request with Chief Justice John Roberts, who handles petitions from the Fourth Circuit. Roberts can rule on the school board’s request to block the lower court decision, or he can refer the request to the entire Court to consider.

It is not known when Roberts or the Court will make that choice.

The Gloucester County School Board has argued that the Obama administration overstepped its authority in protecting transgender student rights. Attorneys for the school board said that overreach began in 2012, when an administration agency issued an opinion that said refusing transgender students access to the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity violated Title IX.

The administration expanded that opinion in October 2015 and filed a friend of the court brief on Grimm’s behalf with the Fourth Circuit, arguing it was the administration’s position that the school board’s policy violated federal law.

The administration again expanded that opinion in May this year into a directive stating that should publicly funded schools deny transgender students access to facilities that conform to students’ gender identity, they would be in violation of federal law, subject to lawsuits, and risking their federal funding.

The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on these actions in initially siding with Grimm earlier this year.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”