Student Well-Being

In Youth’s Tender Emotions, Abusers Find Easy Pickings

By Caroline Hendrie — December 02, 1998 6 min read

More than a year before he stole her virginity in the high school wrestling room, Michael Dwayne Blevins had figured out how to make the pretty blonde in his 8th grade science class feel special.

It started one day not long after she had entered Rural Retreat High School in Wythe County, Va. The teacher, then in his early 30s, was silently reading a letter in class. When several students teased him about wanting to look at it, he replied that she was the only one he would grant that privilege.

“He told me I was the one person he could always trust,” recalled the girl, now 17. She, in turn, assured him, “If you ever need somebody to talk to, you can talk to me.”

A Trust Betrayed

The ease with which this southwestern Virginia teacher and coach played on the emotions of his 13-year-old pupil--and her lack of suspicion about any ulterior motives--was by no means exceptional among cases involving sexual misconduct in schools.

On the contrary, one reason some adults are drawn to adolescents and younger children, experts in the field say, is that they are so easy to manipulate.

“If you try to approach an adult, it can be scary,” said Robert A. Prentky, the director of assessment at the Justice Resource Institute, a nonprofit contractor based at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a prison with 500 sex offenders in Bridgewater, Mass. “It’s far less likely that a child is going to reject you.”

So while there is no single profile of a teacher who sexually abuses students, an ability to take advantage of their young targets’ immaturity is a common trait. Whether the goal is to make a teenager fall in love or to coax a 3rd grader into a closet, educators who abuse students prove adept at pushing the right buttons to bend them to their will.

Techniques Vary

In Mr. Blevins’ case, all three of the young women he has admitted abusing report similar approaches. The girl from Rural Retreat High was involved with him for more than four years, even after he left Wythe County for Shawsville Middle and High School in Montgomery County, Va., some 60 miles up Interstate 81 in the state’s southwest corner. He became involved with the other two 17-year-olds at Shawsville.

In each case, he played for the girl’s sympathy, authorities say, and then won greater access by asking her to spend extra time with him to enter statistics into a computer. At Rural Retreat, the computer was in his private office, while at Shawsville, it was in his apartment.

“It was always, ‘Poor me. I need all this mothering and comforting,’ ” said Sandra Wright, an assistant prosecutor in Montgomery County, one of the three counties where Mr. Blevins pleaded guilty to sex charges. “And they fell for it.”

The letter that the Rural Retreat student, who is now a senior, remembers reading in class five years ago turned out to be deeply personal, urging Mr. Blevins to abandon thoughts of suicide despite his marital troubles.

While the letter was purportedly from a friend, the girl now believes the teacher wrote it himself. At the time, though, letting her read it was just one of many ways she said he made her feel “very special.”

“He’d just single me out and make me feel good,” the girl, a drum majorette and beauty-pageant contestant, recalled during a recent interview at the courthouse here. “And I was the one who made straight A’s in science. I haven’t done that since.”

Mr. Blevins’ fate will not be known until he is sentenced in all three counties, a process set to be completed later this month. Through his lawyers, he declined to be interviewed.

Targeting the Vulnerable

One way that some abusers improve their odds is by zeroing in on youngsters of greater-than-average vulnerability.

Peter Luciano, now a 32-year-old biotechnology researcher in Belmont, Mass., said he fit that profile when a male English teacher at his private high school in Albany, N.Y., began cultivating a relationship that eventually led to sex. His parents were divorced, and his relationship with his mother was troubled, he recalled. He now believes that the teacher “looked for boys like me who were confused and vulnerable.”

“They have an uncanny ability to pick the child who is needy, has bad communication with his parents--the kid who isn’t going to tell,” said W. Richard Fossey, the associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University.

Students who lack strong relations with parents and peers or who face unusual stress may be more receptive to the attention--and more intimidated by threats.

“It’s also because they’re less likely to be believed,” said Edward F. Stancik, the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City school system. “They’re seen as easy marks and low risk.”

Those assumptions are often true, and enable some educators to get away with abuse for years.

Prosecutors in Plymouth County, Mass., investigated allegations that John Shockro, a popular teacher and coach in Mattapoisett, assaulted numerous girls over 23 years. He pleaded guilty last year to seven counts of child rape and six other sexual-assault charges involving two students from 1994 through 1996.

One girl, whom he admitted assaulting in 1995 when she was 16, had grown close to the well-loved gym teacher and basketball coach after she underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor. When she went to his office one day to tell him the tumor had recurred, authorities say, he pinned her against his desk and raped her.

Prosecutors say Mr. Shockro began grooming his victims in their early teens, flattering them, consoling them, and even writing love letters. Physical contact usually came gradually.

“It was a planned progression,” Assistant District Attorney Frank J. Middleton Jr. said. “Once they’d gotten in too deep, that’s when the wolf jumped out of the sheep’s clothing.”

Mr. Shockro’s victims reported that he regularly pinned them against walls and lockers, and sometimes slapped or punched them if they balked at sex.

“You not only raped me,” one former student said at his sentencing last December, “you raped my soul.”

Mr. Shockro, now 50, is serving an eight-year sentence in a Massachusetts state prison. His lawyer declined to comment on his case.

Emotional Isolation Sought

Once they’ve spotted a vulnerable target, offenders may try to subvert whatever support structures youngsters may have, or isolate them from family and friends. The unequal relationships formed from such beginnings can last for years.

Thinking back on why she kept her four-year relationship with Mr. Blevins a secret, the girl from Rural Retreat High said the reasons were complex.

He helped worsen strains at home, she said, convincing her that her parents were cruel. He had showered her with gifts, from lingerie to a diamond “engagement ring.” And when she tried to end the relationship, he reacted violently, often threatening suicide.

After thinking about it for a moment, the girl said: “I didn’t tell because I truly thought he cared for me.”

Even now, knowing that he was having sex with two other girls though he was still involved with her, she said she feels sorry for him. And she believes that he may have genuinely cared for her.

But when asked in court this fall by Wythe County assistant prosecutor Carla Collins whether she still believed in his love for her, the girl bowed her head and cried. The teacher, now 36, his sandy hair thinning on top and graying at the temples, stared ahead, without emotion, as she lifted her head to address the judge.

“No,” she answered. “Because he took away from me something I will never, ever be able to get back.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 1998 edition of Education Week as In Youth’s Tender Emotions, Abusers Find Easy Pickings

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