Student Well-Being

Abuse by Women Raises Its Own Set of Problems

By Caroline Hendrie — November 25, 1998 14 min read
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The upcoming Saturday was Valentine’s Day, and Julie Anne Feil was determined to make it a memorable one. On a note pad from her classroom desk, she scribbled a wish list for the evening ahead.

“Here’s what I want,” wrote the Hastings Senior High School English teacher. “1. Go to our place. 2. Great Sex! 3. Dinner out--Olive Garden? Planet Hollywood? We dress up! 4. Dancing or a movie? Or our place and more great sex?”

When Ms. Feil wrote that note last winter, she was a 31-year-old wife and mother still married to the father of her 8-year-old son. Her valentine, though, was a skinny 10th grader just half her age, a boy who played with super-hero action figures and had barely started to shave. For the previous four months, the two had been carrying on a secret sexual relationship that included trysts in her home and car, passionate love letters, and frequent talk of marriage.

A Trust Betrayed

Cases such as Ms. Feil’s, in which female educators are cast in the culturally unfamiliar role of sexual predator, pose special challenges for schools, courts, and communities alike. No one in recent memory has underscored that point more dramatically than Mary Kay LeTourneau, the imprisoned Seattle teacher who bore her second child in October by a 15-year-old former student.

With emotional dynamics that are often notably different from those involving men, such cases challenge any number of social stereotypes: Women are victims, not predators; boys who have sex with older women should consider themselves lucky; and love justifies even the most unlikely of matches.

This and other factors have traditionally led to differences in the way in which sexual misconduct by women teachers is handled by schools, courts, and the victims themselves.

But as more of these cases surface, the response appears to be shifting. Women involved with male students may still be treated less harshly than men, but relationships that might once have been written off as harmless rites of passage are now increasingly being treated as rape.

Prevalence Unclear

“Society is being confronted by the fact that both men and women can behave inappropriately, and that young boys are just as vulnerable to abuse as young girls,” said Robert J. Shoop, an expert on sexual-harassment prevention at Kansas State University. “The issue is exactly the same: No adult should be having a sexual relationship with any child.”

Because sexual misconduct by educators is a little-studied topic nationally, no one knows what proportion of it is committed by women. Yet an examination of recent cases around the country suggests that women play a significant, if decidedly secondary, role in such abuse.

Of the nearly 250 cases of alleged staff-on-student sexual misconduct reviewed by Education Week, 43 of them, or nearly one in five, involved female employees. In five of those cases, the victims were girls. The rest were boys in middle or high school, ranging in age from 11 to 17.

In such a female-dominated profession as education, such numbers should perhaps evoke little surprise. Still, most educators would never dream of becoming sexually involved with a student, and many find it particularly hard to imagine one of their female colleagues doing so.

Many school professionals and members of the public still believe that a teacher like Ms. LeTourneau is nothing but a fluke.

“The vast majority of people think she’s one in a gazillion,” Mr. Shoop said. “They think, ‘No one like that could ever be in my school.’ ”

One of the few major studies of staff-on-student sexual misconduct, which found men to be the abusers in all but 4 percent of 225 cases examined from 1988 to 1993, would seem to reinforce such thinking.

But Charol Shakeshaft, a co-author of that study, now speculates that those numbers may have been affected by underreporting of sex between women and boys.

“If a boy said this happened, people might respond to him, ‘Boy, aren’t you lucky!’ ” said Ms. Shakeshaft, a professor of educational administration and policy studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t more than we uncovered.”

For that reason, she was not surprised that the Education Week analysis--conducted after widespread publicity in the LeTourneau case--found a substantially higher proportion of women than her study had.

‘Web of Lies’

Several features of the LeTourneau case that captured public attention--the wide age gap between the teacher and her student and the persistence of her passion for him--have been themes in the less widely publicized Julie Anne Feil case as well.

And just as many people remain fascinated and mystified by Ms. LeTourneau, Ms. Feil’s seemingly unlikely liaison continues to puzzle many here in Hastings, a quiet riverbank community 30 miles downriver from St. Paul.

“What would lead a seemingly respected teacher to do something like that?” asked James C. Backstrom, the Dakota County attorney who prosecuted the case. “We still don’t understand it.”

Compounding the questions is a quirky facet of Ms. Feil’s case that emerged shortly after her arrest 10 months ago. Although she had convinced everyone around her that she had been battling cancer for months, she had in reality never been touched by the disease.

“The web of lies entangled many members of the community,” said Wayne Haugen, the superintendent of the 5,300-student Hastings school district.

As the town continues to search for answers, it is clear that the two people most directly affected--Ms. Feil and the boy--now harbor sharply divergent feelings about what happened between them.

‘A Monster’

The boy and his family are not granting interviews, and Ms. Feil declined through her lawyer to discuss the case. But the contrast in their perspectives was on full display July 31, when Ms. Feil stood before a judge and pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual contact, acknowledging a sexual relationship with the boy from October 1997 through February of this year.

“I broke the law by sharing a physical and an emotional intimacy with someone I thought--someone I believed--would love me and support me always,” Ms. Feil told the court. “I loved him the best way I knew how, and I spent the last five months fighting for that incredible love which led me to cross the boundaries that separated us.”

“Society is being confronted by the fact that both men and women can behave inappropriately,” one researcher points out.

Then, speaking directly to the boy’s parents, she said, “I am so sorry for the harm, the pain I’ve caused you. I love your son.”

To the boy and his family, however, the apology rang hollow.

“I believe that I was manipulated into a false love so that Ms. Feil could have sexual pleasure,” the boy told Judge Thomas R. Lacy. “I have come to believe that she is a monster that has terrorized me and my family.”

The boy’s father predicted that his son “will be scarred for the rest of his life, both mentally and emotionally, by this woman.”

He also charged that school officials should have been more vigilant in detecting the abuse and that the courts were remiss in freeing Ms. Feil on bond, thereby giving her the opportunity to remain in contact with the boy while out of jail.

“If this case would have been a man manipulating and raping a girl,” the father told the judge, “it would have been handled a whole lot differently.”

Patterns Vary by Gender

Whether the father’s allegation is true--and both the prosecutor and superintendent argue that it is not--experts agree that the dynamics of staff-on-student sex vary depending on the sex of the participants.

Jane Kinder Matthews, a Minneapolis-based psychologist, researcher, and author, has noted striking differences between men and women in her work with sex offenders, including about 60 women over the past decade. Women seldom use force to compel sex or threaten victims to keep them silent, she says. They are less likely to deny their actions, and tend to commit such offenses later in life.

Another difference, Ms. Matthews added, is that women who target teenagers tend to be the least deeply disturbed of all female sex offenders, while men who target that age range are generally more troubled and difficult to treat.

She said women who sexually abuse minors generally fall into three categories:

  • Women who were sexually molested as children and therefore are predisposed to commit such offenses;
  • Those who are coerced to take part in such abuse by men; and
  • What she calls teacher/lovers, who often fall deeply in love with the teenagers with whom they are involved.

While many women in this third category are not teachers by profession, they typically strive to “elevate an adolescent to adult status,” in part by teaching the teenager about sex.

It is into this category that Ms. Feil, Ms. LeTourneau, and many other female school employees accused of abusing students seem to fall.

Little Harm Seen

Such women generally have had difficult, disappointing, or abusive relationships with partners their own age, Ms. Matthews said, and over time begin to see a teenager as a more attractive alternative. “They see these adolescents as full-grown, autonomous adults,” she said.

And because the boys often freely agree to sex, Ms. Matthews added, women often have trouble believing they are doing any harm. “They think they’re giving the kid a huge gift.”

The romantic attachment of such women contrasts sharply with the attitude of many male school employees who abuse girls. Men in such cases tend to justify their relationships by saying merely that the girls were willing sex partners; it is the girls who are usually the ones in love, Mr. Shoop noted.

Moreover, it is far more common for men to seduce more than one girl and to abuse a series of students over time. Such behavior is rare among women.

“I’ve never heard a male predator justify a relationship with a female student by saying, ‘We were in love,’ ” Mr. Shoop said. Yet women often reason that “society might say it’s wrong, but in this case that doesn’t apply because we’re in love, and love conquers all.”

Those arguments sound familiar to John P. Wheeler Jr., the county prosecutor in Finney County, Kan. This fall, he prosecuted Robin Sharp, a 27-year-old special education teacher who received a probationary sentence in October after pleading guilty to having sex with a hearing-impaired 14-year-old student.

Ms. Sharp said she had fallen in love with the boy, a factor Mr. Wheeler said seemed to excuse her transgressions in the eyes of some community members, especially women. Men tended to see little harm in it for the boy. “From men, you will frequently hear, ‘He’s lucky,’ ” Mr. Wheeler said.

Besides Ms. Sharp’s professions of love for the boy, his initiation of some of the sexual encounters mitigated the severity of her crime, argued her lawyer, Richard L. Marquez. He also said that “Robin’s level of emotional functioning was about equivalent to a 14- or 15-year-old,” which “put her on parity with this kid.”

But Mr. Wheeler said he buys none of that.

“I don’t think love should be a defense in that kind of breach of trust,” Mr. Wheeler said. “If you’re going to hold that kind of position, you restrain those kinds of feelings.”

Need for Attention

Restraint was not one of Julie Feil’s strong suits, according to her former colleagues at Hastings High. Before the scandal broke, the attractive, dark-haired teacher stood out for her dramatic flair, strong opinions, and exceptionally close bonds with students, former colleagues say. She would buy students gifts, invite them to her home to watch movies, and let them drive her car.

“She definitely had a following, both male and female,” recalled Diane M. Jensen, the chairwoman of the school’s English department.

Membership on the speech team tripled after Ms. Feil became its coach in 1996. One of her two assistant coaches, Natalie Cardell, considered Ms. Feil to be her mentor. But she was bothered by aspects of the older teacher’s rapport with students.

“She often told sexual jokes to the kids, which was one thing I was very uncomfortable with,” Ms. Cardell, 28, recalled recently.

Ms. Feil often mentioned that various males, including adults, were attracted to her, recalled the other assistant speech coach, Erica Brady Holland. The younger teacher interpreted this tendency as a reflection of Ms. Feil’s desire for constant affirmation.

“Ever since I’ve known her, she’s always needed to be the center of attention,” said Ms. Holland, 26, who has since left Minnesota but was a close friend of Ms. Feil’s before the scandal broke.

The need for frequent validation from others is a hallmark of women in the teacher/lover category of offender, Ms. Matthews said.

“What you have is a needy child and a needy adult,” she said, “and many times, that’s just abuse waiting to happen.”

Note Was a Smoking Gun

Around October of last year, Ms. Feil began singling out a 10th grader in her English class whom she had persuaded to join the speech team. The boy, now 16, who has attention-deficit disorder, was seen by both teachers and peers as immature for his years. He soon “worshipped her,” Ms. Cardell recalled.

“When this popular teacher gave him a special seat by her desk, bought him gifts, took him rock climbing, he was in seventh heaven,” she said.

Though the two assistant coaches continued to have qualms about Ms. Feil’s behavior, it was not until February, when Ms. Holland discovered the Valentine’s Day note while substituting for Ms. Feil, that their fears were confirmed.

As it turned out, the Valentine’s Day date--when they wound up in the apartment Ms. Feil had rented after separating from her husband the month before--was the last time the pair had sex.

The following Tuesday, Ms. Cardell and Ms. Holland turned the note over to administrators and reported on the inappropriate behavior they had witnessed. School officials immediately called the police, and by that afternoon Ms. Feil had admitted the relationship and was under arrest.

During their investigation, the police found evidence--including draft wedding invitations, drawings of a bridal gown, and a poem in which the teacher “pledged her wedding vow to this student"--that Ms. Feil was making marriage plans with the boy. The couple had also exchanged rings, gifts, and love letters in which Ms. Feil reiterated her need for the boy. Her purported struggle against cancer was a recurrent theme, police and prosecutors say, including on at least one occasion when the boy tried to end the relationship.

“I’ve just been told that they need to operate on my brain, for crying out loud, and I’m feeling so happy I’m floating on air!” she wrote the youngster in one such letter. “Why? The answer is simple ... you. You make me happy. Loving you completes me.”

Attachment Endures

According to those who know him, the object of Ms. Feil’s attentions was not ready for such an involvement. “This was a boy who had not yet discovered his sexuality--rather he was still engaged in fantasy play with his toys,” Paul Lehrer, the boy’s therapist, said at Ms. Feil’s sentencing on July 31.

But even the shock of her arrest and subsequent firing did not persuade Ms. Feil to see things that way. While free on bond as she awaited trial four months after her arrest, she drove with her son one night to the boy’s modest green ranch house and pounded on his window at 2 a.m.

During the next hour, court records show, she kissed, fondled, and unsuccessfully coaxed the student to have sex on a neighbor’s lawn, while urging him to return to her apartment.

The boy later told police that the visit had rekindled his feelings for her, and that during a meeting at the local library the following afternoon, he told her he loved her. But afterward he told his mother about the meetings, and police rearrested the teacher for violating the conditions of her bail.

To some people in Hastings, the incident was reminiscent of Mary Kay LeTourneau’s failure to keep her promise to stay away from her teenage lover. The 36-year-old former teacher had received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty in January to second-degree child rape. But the next month, the two were found together in a parked car, and it soon emerged that Ms. LeTourneau had become pregnant by him for a second time.

In the LeTourneau case, though, the boy has continued to profess his love for her. And in contrast to the Minnesota boy’s parents, the Seattle teenager’s mother has accepted Ms. LeTourneau and does not see her son as a victim.

Experts say that women such as Ms. Feil often respond well to therapy, once they have accepted responsibility for harming the boys they loved.

Whether this has happened with Ms. Feil, who is now serving a nearly seven-year sentence in a state prison 30 miles from Hastings, is unclear. But authorities who handled her case have their doubts.

“She’s living in a fantasy world,” said Detective Sgt. Joe Kegley of the Hastings police. “She has nothing else now. Everything else is gone but him. That dream is still sitting there.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 1998 edition of Education Week as Abuse by Women Raises Its Own Set of Problems


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