Family Heals After Teacher-Student Relationship

By Caroline Hendrie — May 07, 2003 13 min read
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The first shock for Michelle Palmer was finding out that a 27-year-old coach and teacher was driving out to her Iowa farm in the dead of night, sneaking into her house through a basement door, and having sex with her 16-year-old daughter.

The next shock was discovering that he couldn’t be charged with a crime.

Not that there haven’t been consequences for Robert P. Davidson, the man Ms. Palmer used to know only as her daughter’s social studies teacher and basketball coach. He had to quit his job at the local public high school and has lost his teaching license, possibly for good.

But he’s also gotten a good deal of sympathy from those who see his relationship with Kemery Gies, Ms. Palmer’s daughter, as a star-crossed love affair. As often as not, Ms. Palmer has felt as if both she and her daughter have been blamed for what happened, and that perception has weighed heavy as her family has struggled to cope since the day in November 2001 when the relationship came to light.

“It has been a year and a half of hell,” Ms. Palmer, 42, a nurse who lives with her husband and three children in the farming community of Corning, Iowa, said in a recent interview. “Just after we get over one hurdle, we hit another. It’s just been awful.”

Ms. Palmer is the first to admit that her ordeal might have played out more privately had she maintained a lower profile. After all, many parents in her shoes join forces with school leaders to keep cases of teacher-student sex as quiet as possible to avoid embarrassment for their schools, their communities, and their children.

But propelled by a sense of injustice, Ms. Palmer has not kept silent.

In her understated, Midwestern manner, she has taken local school officials to task for their handling of the situation, and filed a sexual-harassment complaint against the district with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. She has joined a national network of victims’ advocates, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation, or SESAME. She also has pushed for a state law that would make sex between educators and older teenagers, not just younger children, a crime in Iowa, as it is in many other states. (“States Target Sexual Abuse by Educators,” April 30, 2003.)

Ms. Palmer even appeared with her daughter on a national TV talk show to speak out against sexual abuse by educators—an experience that turned sour when Mr. Davidson turned up as an invited guest along with his own mother to tell his side of the story.

She has done all that, she says, not to make herself or her child a celebrity, or to wring money out of the school district. She says she’s done it to help convince people that society needs to send a clearer message that sex between an educator and a student is always wrong, no matter how mature the youngster may seem or how much the two may say they care for each other.

Love, in other words, should be no excuse.

“I don’t know if you get it until it happens to you,” Ms. Palmer said. “I want to continue to educate people. I’m trying to do all I can to make changes.”

‘A Neat Guy’

Corning is a rural community of 1,800 people located a two-hour drive southwest from the state capital, Des Moines. Ms. Palmer and her second husband, a farmer and insurance adjuster, were born and raised there and live in a tan ranch house surrounded by cropland eight miles outside of town.

Ms. Gies—the child of her mother’s short-lived marriage to a Minnesotan she met in the U.S. Navy—has lived in Corning most of her life and has attended local public schools since kindergarten. A straight-A student who is now a junior in the town’s 230- student high school, she is involved in an array of outside activities.

“Kemery is an outstanding young woman,” said Nancy Turner, the president of the 650-student district’s school board. “She continues to be very active in school and do very well, and for that we’re very grateful.”

A standout member of the girls’ basketball team, Ms. Gies first met Mr. Davidson in the summer after her freshman year, when she was 15. He had just been hired from an all-girls Catholic school in eastern Iowa to teach and coach the girls’ varsity squad at Corning High School, and she took part in “open gym” sessions he started supervising shortly after coming to town in July 2001.

During the summer, the pair “had an appropriate coach-athlete relationship,” according to a preliminary ruling issued last November in a state-level proceeding to consider revocation of Mr. Davidson’s license. But once school started, the teacher began suspecting that Ms. Gies had a crush on him, according to the ruling.

Looking back, Ms. Gies recalls, “I thought he was a neat guy, but I didn’t think anything would come of it.”

In late September of 2001, Ms. Gies told Mr. Davidson “there were rumors that the two of them were having a relationship, but that she had denied the rumors,” according to Mr. Davidson’s account that is summarized in Iowa Administrative Law Judge Margaret LaMarche’s proposed decision in the licensure case.

The teacher then asked Ms. Gies about her sentiments, and when she acknowledged “that she had feelings for him,” he told her “he felt the same way,” the ruling says. It adds that Mr. Davidson “initially told her that they could not act on their feelings because it would ruin his career and their reputations.”

But shortly afterward, during a conversation in which she told him she was a virgin, he suggested that the two have a “discreet” relationship, according to the ruling. Ms. Gies warned him that such a relationship wouldn’t work, the ruling recounts, because “the town was too small.”

Despite their misgivings, it says, the pair soon began a series of late-night rendezvous in her basement bedroom after her family was asleep.

“The two of them continued to meet like this several times a week throughout October and November,” exchanging vows of love and having “intercourse on two occasions,” according to the judge’s decision.

Both Ms. Gies and Mr. Davidson have said they did not have sex until after her 16th birthday on Sept. 27, 2001, which means that she could legally consent under Iowa law.

Feeling Guilty

Ms. Gies says she is reluctant to judge Mr. Davidson harshly for what happened between them.

“I think he honestly, in his mind, thought he loved me,” she said in a recent interview. “If I was a teacher, I would blame it all on myself.”

Then again, she added, “I like to take full responsibility.”

Throughout the relationship, Ms. Gies said, she knew it was wrong. “I’m always going to feel like it could have been prevented,” she said. “I feel guilt, because I knew we were going to get caught.”

Burdened by such feelings, Ms. Gies confided in one of her mother’s friends, who soon told Ms. Palmer.

Ms. Palmer in turn sought advice from another friend, who tipped off police. Officers discovered Mr. Davidson walking to his car near the Palmers’ home in the wee hours of Nov. 21, 2001, and alerted the high school’s athletic director that night.

What happened the next day is a source of lingering hard feelings.

According to the family, the high school’s principal and guidance counselor called Ms. Gies in and told her that Mr. Davidson had confessed to their relationship, even though he had actually denied it when confronted. Believing that their relationship was no longer secret, she went ahead and acknowledged it, prompting school officials to seek the teacher’s immediate resignation after he then admitted to the relationship.

Neither the principal, who has been placed on active military duty, nor the counselor could be reached for comment.

Ms. Palmer says she was furious that school officials did not get in touch with her before questioning her daughter, and Ms. Gies herself says she still feels deceived.

“I don’t trust the school anymore,” the girl said.

And that’s not all that Ms. Palmer is angry about. She contends school officials had ample reason to believe that Mr. Davidson was involved with her daughter for months, but failed to act.

In the complaint filed with the state civil rights commission, the family cites an incident in the late summer of 2001 when, they say, the athletic director for the high school sent a senior girl to ask Ms. Gies if she was having an affair with the teacher. Ms. Gies denied that she was.

The complaint also relates incidents in which, according to the family, teachers and coaches talked with others about the apparent relationship, and it lists more than a dozen school staff members who allegedly “observed inappropriate attention” directed at the girl by her teacher.

In addition, it names many students who are said to have seen the couple behaving amorously, and it maintains that students and their parents considered the relationship “obvious.”

Ms. Palmer says she wishes that someone from the school had alerted her early on.

“In a small school system like we’ve got, you’d just have to be blind not to know it was going on,” she argued.

Experts say questions about how school administrators should address suspicions of educators’ sexual misconduct with students do not always have clear-cut answers, especially given the varying provisions of state laws. (No Easy Answers for Schools in Misconduct Inquiries,” this issue.)

Conflicting Accounts

Corning Superintendent Gregg W. Fuerstenau says he can’t discuss most specifics of how the district handled the case. But he adamantly denies another of Ms. Palmer’s complaints: that school leaders wanted to take no further action after allowing Mr. Davidson to resign.

Ms. Palmer maintains that Mr. Fuerstenau placed subtle pressure on her to hold back on complaining about Mr. Davidson to the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, the state’s teacher-licensing authority.

“The superintendent called me at work and said, ‘Are you sure that you want me to turn in Bob Davidson?’” she recalled. “He asked me three times, and then he said, ‘OK, we’re in this together.’”

She suspects he then made her the bad guy by telling the teacher that the district was pursuing the licensure case because she insisted. Mr. Fuerstenau disputes Ms. Palmer’s account.

“Under no circumstances did I ever call those parents and talk about licensure,” he said in a recent interview. “I made the determination that a person who engages in this type of behavior should not have a teaching license. So I filed a complaint.”

The superintendent signed the complaint on Dec. 5, 2001, but the administrative- law judge did not rule until Nov. 21, 2002, a year to the day after Mr. Davidson resigned. That delay may have contributed to the Palmers’ discontent, the superintendent speculated.

In the proposed decision, which Mr. Davidson has appealed to the board of examiners, Judge LaMarche dismissed the teacher’s request for a two- or three-year suspension and recommended instead that he lose his license permanently.

Attempts to reach Mr. Davidson for comment for this story were unsuccessful, and calls to the lawyer who represented him in the licensure matter were not returned.

The board is expected to consider the appeal at a meeting scheduled for May 16. Mr. Fuerstenau said the district supports permanent revocation.

“The respondent placed his own personal needs and interests before his responsibility as an educator and coach to the detriment of this student,” the judge wrote of Mr. Davidson.

Even though the teacher “appears to sincerely and deeply regret his actions,” the judge continued, he “appears to have no insight into why he was vulnerable to making these devastating and impulsive choices.”

The judge said “the only issue is whether a door should be left open to allow the respondent to someday return to teaching and coaching.” She concluded that the door should remain shut.

“The public interest demands that the sanction in this case serve as a strong deterrent to other licensees who may find themselves in similar situations,” she wrote.

While Judge LaMarche asserted that “there are no gray areas” when it comes to teacher-student sex, the law in Iowa has suggested otherwise.

Iowa has a statute targeting people in positions of authority who have sex with young people, but it only covers children ages 14 and 15. (Younger children are covered by other laws.) Moreover, the offender must have used “that authority to coerce the other person to submit.”

After their relationship came to light, Mr. Davidson and Ms. Gies continued seeing each other, she said. When Ms. Palmer discovered that they had met in a motel room in February 2002, three months after the relationship was revealed, Ms. Palmer got the local sheriff’s office to agree to charge the teacher with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A magistrate later dismissed the charges after Ms. Gies testified that the two did not have sex that night.

Ms. Palmer is hoping that legislation she has pushed for in Iowa might help change the ground rules on teacher-student sex. (“States Target Sexual Abuse by Educators,” April 30, 2003.)

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Jeff Angelo, a Republican, would prohibit consensual sex between educators and students and require school officials to report to state licensing officials any credible allegations of misconduct by certified personnel.

The measure has passed the Senate unanimously, but faces rougher sledding the House, Sen. Angelo said.

Ms. Palmer told the lawmaker in a recent letter that “your work has been the single most healing event we have had since this nightmare started in the fall of 2001.”

Talk-Show Showdown

The details of the Corning case became grist this past February for “The John Walsh Show,” the NBC daytime talk program featuring the host of the crime show “America’s Most Wanted.”

Ms. Palmer says she agreed to appear on the show with her daughter, after being contacted by SESAME, because she wanted to help inform the public about sexual misconduct by educators. She says she didn’t find out that Mr. Davidson was also appearing until he called her daughter’s cell phone after they were already in New York City for the taping.

During the show, Ms. Gies acknowledged a lingering soft spot for her “first love.”

Ms. Palmer, though, spoke of her opposition to a relationship that she considered beyond her daughter’s maturity level. “As far as I’m concerned, he took the best years of Kemery’s life and ruined them,” she said on the show.

Appearing with his mother by his side, Mr. Davidson fought back tears while discussing his feelings for his former student with Mr. Walsh, who called him “Bobby.” His mother recounted her family’s devastation upon hearing from her son at Thanksgiving dinner that he had been forced to resign.

Later, the teacher apologized on the air to Ms. Palmer, saying that “the way me and Kemery went about the relationship is the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever done.” He added, however, that he never did anything he felt the student wasn’t ready for. “Your daughter means the world to me,” he said, again choking up.

A middle-aged woman from the audience then received hearty applause after saying she had been happily married to her former teacher since the age of 17. She added that Ms. Palmer should not stand in the way of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance at true love.

Mr. Walsh said during the show that as a matter of principle, educators should not have sex with students. But he also said that Mr. Davidson’s case was “complicated,” and suggested to Ms. Palmer that “maybe he made a big mistake that he’s genuinely sorry for and now it’s time to move on.”

Being put on the defensive about her efforts to protect her daughter during the show confirmed in Ms. Palmer a broader sense, she says, that the 16-year-old was seen by some people as fully capable of deciding whether to have sex with her teacher.

“The tone has been she’s been a big girl and made a big-girl decision,” Ms. Palmer said.

For her part, Ms. Gies, who will turn 18 in September, says she is trying to regain her school spirit and move on. She was hurt when she was not selected this year for the National Honor Society, a slight that her mother thinks was related the sex case. Yet the junior still has big plans for the future, and is checking out colleges.

Ms. Gies says she has done some dating since breaking from Mr. Davidson in May of last year. But she says she recently ended a five-month relationship because she felt it didn’t compare to the one with her former teacher.

“I haven’t been able to feel like that about somebody since,” she said. “He knows how to make you think you can’t live without him.”


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