Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Anyone She Wanted: The Sexual Offense of Debra Lafave

Teacher Predators

According to the Child Molestation and Research Prevention Institute, sexual abuse causes harm that carries over into the child's adult life, no matter what the child's gender. On the Web site, they claim that studies show the damage as difficulty in forming long-term relationships; sexual risk-taking; serious depression; and failures in the immune system, with increases in illnesses, hospitalizations, and early deaths.

In a 2004 study, commissioned by the Department of Education, author Charol Shakeshaft indicates that nearly ten percent of U.S. public school students have experienced sexual advances from school employees. While not all abusers are teachers, and certainly a small percent involves female offenders, it's still a high number. The report was titled "Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature," and within this ten percent are students who have reported unwanted sexual innuendo, as well as groping, inappropriate invitations, and even outright rape.

Shakeshaft insists that educator misconduct is "woefully understudied," and she provides a number of signals about which to be aware. Among their seductive behaviors are:

  • deception
  • gift-giving
  • isolation of the victim
  • gradual increase in inappropriate touching

"Often the teachers target vulnerable or marginal students who are grateful for the attention," she says. The desensitization process works more quickly with boys and includes tests to see if they will remain silent and secretive. Often the teacher will provide additional "help" that leaves the child alone with them, creating the aura of a special relationship.

Some experts indicate that many adolescent boys abused by older women become rapists and sex offenders, targeting girls. One study found 59%, another 66%, and a third from 1993 states it is 80%. While the disparity in numbers indicates the need for better methods of information analysis, it's clear that we need to attend to the problem.

Owen Lafave quotes many of these experts in his book, compiling his own list of the warning signals. Most were applicable to Debra, he says, and among them are:

  • Adopting behavior like the students and treating students as if they were peers
  • Spending time with a student when there is no academic reason to do so
  • Engaging in flirting or teasing remarks
  • Telling sexual jokes or making sexual innuendos
  • Repeatedly contacting the student at home
  • Locking classroom doors
  • Dressing inappropriately

Karen Duncan
Karen Duncan

During the media blitz, several experts were asked to comment on the phenomenon. Sexual assault therapist Karen Duncan was among them. She commented in an article by Thomas Krause in the Tampa Tribune that young men can suffer from sexual assault incidents involving women. Rather than feeling macho, as their buddies encourage them to do, they may experience shame and humiliation. She added that sex offenders often seek out victims who would be reluctant to speak out and testify in court, and in later years many suffer from anxiety and have trouble trusting women. "Self-esteem and self-image problems are common," she claimed, because the offender has not introduced the victim to sexuality, but to abuse.

CBS News covered the Lafave case as part of a growing trend, and legal analyst Wendy Murphy commented from a different perspective. "One of the reasons boys don't think of it as harmful," she stated, "is, when they talk about it, they get a pat on the back... We have to stop doing that, because when they age to sexual maturity, that's when they start to realize it wasn't really pleasurable, it really was abuse, and often that's too late to do the repair work the victim needs."

While all the experts indicate that it can be difficult to pinpoint a budding offender among the ranks of female teachers, none mentions one of the most common characteristics: extreme neediness and the desire for attention. When it appears that those needs are getting met by a particular student, it's time to attend to the situation. All schools should have a plan in place for such situations, because the incidents, along with the opportunities, are increasing.

Whatever one might think of Debra Lafave, as she herself admitted, she crossed a line that should never have been crossed. Others are currently thinking about or doing the same. In Tennessee in 2007, one young man even died as the result of such a tryst. We need to take such situations seriously.

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