Student Well-Being

Unusual Suspects

By Caroline Hendrie — February 01, 1999 14 min read
For years, schools, courts, and even the victims themselves have viewed women involved with male students less harshly than men who commit similar transgressions.

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, Minnesota, 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 Feil wrote that note last winter, she was a 31-year-old wife and the mother of an 8-year-old son. Her valentine, though, was a skinny 10th grader half her age, a boy who played with superhero 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.

Cases such as Feil’s cast female educators in the culturally unfamiliar role of sexual predator. No one in recent memory has underscored that point more dramatically than Mary Kay Letourneau, the imprisoned Seattle teacher who in October bore her second child 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.

Traditionally, such stereotypes have contributed to what could be seen as a reverse double standard when it comes to sexual misconduct by educators. For years, schools, courts, and even the victims themselves have viewed women involved with male students less harshly than men who commit similar transgressions. But as more of these cases surface, the response appears to be shifting. Relationships that might once have been written off as harmless rites of passage are now increasingly being treated as rape. “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,” says Robert 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, 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. Education Week, Teacher Magazine‘s sister publication, conducted a search of newspapers and computer databases and reviewed active cases of alleged staff-on-student sexual misconduct over a six-month period, from March through August of 1998. Of the nearly 250 cases turned up in the search, 43--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. To many school professionals and members of the public, Mary Letourneau is nothing but a fluke. “The vast majority of people think she’s one in a gazillion,” Shoop says. “They think, No one like that could ever be in my school.”

One of the few major studies of staff-on-student sexual misconduct seems to reinforce such thinking. It found men to be the abusers in all but 4 percent of 225 cases examined from 1988 to 1993. But Charol Shakeshaft, a co-author of that study, 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. She already was speculating that the numbers in her study 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!’ ” explains Shakeshaft, a professor of educational administration and policy studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t more than we uncovered.”

Several features of the Letourneau case that captured public attention--the 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 Letourneau, 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?” asks James Backstrom, the Dakota County attorney who prosecuted the case. “We still don’t understand it.”

Education Week’s study found that nearly one in five cases of staff-on-student sexual misconduct involved female employees.

Compounding such questions is a quirky facet of 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,” says Wayne Haugen, superintendent of the 5,300-student Hastings school district.

As the town continues to search for answers, the two people most directly affected--Feil and the boy--now harbor sharply divergent feelings about what happened between them. The boy and his family are not granting interviews, and Feil declined through her lawyer to discuss the case. But the contrast in their perspectives was on full display July 31, when 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 1998. “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,” 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.”

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 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 Feil on bond, giving her the opportunity to pursue her relationship 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.”

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 gender 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, Matthews adds, 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 says 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. Though many women in the teacher/lover 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 third category that Feil, Letourneau, and many other female school employees accused of abusing students seem to fall. Such women generally have had difficult, disappointing, or abusive relationships with partners their own age, Matthews says, and over time they begin to see a teenager as a more attractive alternative. “They see these adolescents as full-grown, autonomous adults,” she says.

And because the boys often freely agree to sex, Matthews adds, 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 usually the girls who are the ones in love, Shoop notes.

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,’ ” Shoop says. 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 Wheeler Jr., county prosecutor in Finney County, Kansas. 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. Sharp said she had fallen in love with the boy, a factor that Wheeler believes led many in the community--especially women--to excuse her transgressions. Men tended to see little harm in it for the boy. “From men, you will frequently hear, ‘He’s lucky,’ ” Wheeler says.

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

Richard Marquez, Sharp’s lawyer, argues that the teacher’s love for the boy and the fact that he initiated some of the sexual encounters mitigated the severity of her crime. Marquez also says 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 Wheeler buys none of that. “I don’t think love should be a defense in that kind of breach of trust,” Wheeler says. “If you’re going to hold that kind of position, you restrain those kinds of feelings.”

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. 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,” recalls Diane Jensen, chairwoman of the school’s English department.

Membership on the speech team tripled after Feil became its coach in 1996. One of her two assistant coaches, Natalie Cardell, considered Feil 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,” Cardell, 28, recalls.

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

“Ever since I’ve known her, she’s always needed to be the center of attention,” says Holland, 26, who has since left Minnesota but was a close friend of 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, according to psychologist Matthews. “What you have is a needy child and a needy adult,” she says. “And many times, that’s just abuse waiting to happen.”

Around October of 1997, Feil began singling out a 10th grader in her English class whom she had persuaded to join the speech team. The boy, now 16, has attention deficit disorder, and he was seen at the time by both teachers and peers as immature for his years. He soon worshipped her, Cardell recalls. “When this popular teacher gave him a special seat by her desk, bought him gifts, took him rock climbing, he was in seventh heaven.”

Though the two assistant coaches continued to have qualms about Feil’s behavior, it was not until February, when Holland discovered the Valentine’s Day note while substituting for Feil, that their fears were confirmed. As it turned out, the Valentine’s Day date--when they wound up in the apartment Feil had rented after separating from her husband the month before--was the last time the pair had sex. The following Tuesday, Cardell and Holland turned the note over to administrators and reported the inappropriate behavior they had witnessed. School officials immediately called police, and by that afternoon 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 Feil was making marriage plans with the boy. The couple had also exchanged rings, gifts, and love letters in which 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.”

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

But even the shock of her arrest and subsequent firing did not dissuade Feil. Four months after her arrest, while free on bond as she awaited trial, 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.

The boy later told police that the visit had rekindled his feelings for her. 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 1998 to second-degree child rape. But the next month, the two were found together in a parked car, and it soon emerged that Letourneau had become pregnant by him for a second time.

In the Letourneau case, 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 Letourneau and does not see her son as a victim.

Experts say that women such as Feil often respond well to therapy once they have accepted responsibility for harming the boys they loved. Whether this has happened with 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,” says Detective Sergeant 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 February 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Unusual Suspects


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