There’s no doubt that much of the watercooler chatter across the metro area the past few days centered on the tantalizing details that emerged after two teachers at Destrehan High School were arrested on charges of having group sex with a 16-year-old student at a Kenner apartment.
The arrests came after boasts by the alleged victim to other students about his escapades with his current and former English teachers, according to school officials, who caught wind of the talk and reported it to the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office.
As news broke, reactions in the parish and across the region ranged across the spectrum, from shock and anger among parents and school officials that teachers would betray the trust placed in them, to crude jokes and even congratulatory high-fives for the teenage boy offered by some gathered at local watering holes or on online message boards. Even “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon jumped into the fray.
A host of professional observers — including law enforcement officials, therapists, sociologists and child welfare advocates — say that if the allegations are true, it’s obvious a crime was committed. At the same time, they understand why the court of public opinion seems less universal in its outrage than in some other cases where teachers have had sex with students.
In many ways, the student’s alleged behavior in this case “is on the spectrum of gender scripts that it’s not this completely anomalous pathological behavior,” said Marcus Kondkar, a sociology professor at Loyola University, noting that the two women in the alleged three-way sexual encounter were attractive and young, although still a good deal older than the student. “It’s actually fairly close to the way we idealize masculinity.”
“I think everybody agrees that they crossed the line,” Kondkar said. “Now, I think the reason why we’re having a more complicated reaction to this than we would if it were two male teachers is because of our gender scripts. We have these gender scripts around sexuality, and in some ways, what this victim has done is sort of basically just met the standard of an idealized form of masculinity for a 16-year-old.”
Still, other behavioral experts wonder aloud about how — if the allegations are true — the two women ever thought a teenage boy could be trusted to keep such an explosive secret. On top of that, what were they thinking in the first place? Were they seeking a thrill, indulging a penchant for risky behavior or simply hungry for sex with whomever, whenever?
Of course, local authorities point out, much of that hardly matters now.
Kenner Police Chief Michael Glaser said at a news conference that “no matter what the sex of the victim is, everyone should be outraged when you have an educator” allegedly involved in an incident like this.
The women, Rachel Respess, 24, and Shelley Dufresne, 32, were booked Wednesday on one count each of carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behavior with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile. They surrendered to Kenner police and were taken to the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center for booking; both posted bond by early Thursday morning.
Gender shouldn’t matter
Glaser said the charges stemmed from “unlawful sexual acts” that allegedly took place at Respess’ Kenner apartment late on the night of Sept. 12 and into the next morning, following a Destrehan football game. He said the student has described the encounter as consensual.
Dufresne, who lives in Montz, had already been arrested Tuesday based on allegations that she had sex with the student on a separate occasion in St. Charles Parish. In connection with that alleged encounter, which authorities said occurred early in September at a home in Montz, Dufresne was booked on one count of carnal knowledge of a juvenile.
Dufresne, the daughter of 29th Judicial District Court Judge Emile St. Pierre, was released Tuesday evening on a $200,000 bond set on that count by Judge Lauren Lemmon. Conditions of her release stipulated that she remain on house arrest except for limited circumstances.
Experts say that whether the alleged victim was a teenage boy or girl shouldn’t matter, because ultimately a crime was committed, even if the boy said the sex was consensual.
“Gender shouldn’t play a role, because the act is the same no matter who the individuals are and it’s inappropriate,” said Michelle Moore, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans. “But I do think that in the public’s eye, and maybe even when this goes to court, if it was two men and a (juvenile) female, it would be different.”
Such views inevitably play a part in shaping public perception of the incident, despite authorities’ belief that a serious crime was committed, Moore said. In this case, some people may chalk the affair up to youthful indiscretion because the prospect of a teenage boy having sex is easier to accept than the notion of a similarly-aged girl doing the same — in part, perhaps, because there is less of a specter of physical coercion or threat when the younger party is a teenage boy.
“It should just be focusing on whatever the crime is, not so much what the genders of the people were,” Moore said. “You have to kind of wonder: If it’s a female student versus a male student, could you say at all whether that makes a difference? Are females more likely to feel more easily persuaded into doing things than male students? I don’t necessarily think so.”
Attractiveness a factor
The relative youth and physical attractiveness of the Destrehan teachers accused in this case may have led to less public revulsion than some similar cases have generated — for instance, when a more plain-looking 41-year-old teacher at a Christian academy in Baton Rouge confessed over the summer to having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy.
“People look at attractive individuals and think they could get people their own age, and I think people would look at an unattractive, older individual and think that they couldn’t get anybody their own age, and that’s why they’re having sex with teenagers,” Moore said, speaking generally. “That doesn’t make it right, but I do think that how attractive you are really does play a role, even for the student, too.”
The emergence of social media also has paved the way for teachers and students to interact in ways that were never possible before, from exchanging text messages to potentially breaking the ice on Facebook or exchanging photos on Snapchat. That’s typically not a good idea, experts say, as what may begin as trusting relationships can, over time, become inappropriate.
“Technology has perpetuated more of these cases,” said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, an advocacy group based in Nevada. “The boundaries are very skewed now, because educators and students can be communicating 24-7. They now have access to their targets at any time of the day.”
In the past, teachers may have exchanged flirting exchanges with students in the classroom or a school hallway, but such exchanges now can occur in secret. A New York Times story Saturday focusing on two New York-area teachers accused of having sex with multiple students noted that both teachers sought out their targets in some cases by sending them nude “selfies” through Snapchat, an app that erases messages shortly after they’re received.
Last week’s revelations also could have the ripple effect of spurring area parents and students to put other teachers under the microscope, subjecting them to scrutiny and perhaps rumors if, for instance, a student stays late after class or a teacher gives a hug to a young student who is having a bad day.
Data are lacking
Overall, it’s unclear whether instances of sex between teachers and students are on the rise nationwide, experts said, because the subject is not adequately tracked by the federal government.
Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, issued a 2004 report for the U.S. Department of Education that reviewed studies of abuse in public schools. In the past, she said, a reluctance by students to report the abuse was more typical, sometimes due to feelings that they wouldn’t be taken seriously, or else due to shame or guilt that they had played a role in it. A shy student might have appreciated the new attention or felt flattered by a teacher’s sudden attentions.
But Shakeshaft and others speculate that reports of sexual abuse by educators may be on the rise as victims become more comfortable speaking out, possibly in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in the early 2000s.
In her report, Shakeshaft analyzed data collected by a range of studies, including a survey of more than 2,000 students from eighth through 11th grades conducted by the American Association of University Women. Using those figures, she concluded that more than 4.5 million students in the U.S. had been subjected to sexual misconduct by a school employee sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.
The Destrehan case isn’t the first time in recent memory that an educator in St. Charles Parish has faced accusations of inappropriate contact with a student. Troy Quinn, 44, a former middle school health and gym teacher in Luling, awaits trial on charges that he had inappropriate sexual conduct with a 13-year-old female student on three occasions in 2012. And Byron Toups, a former band teacher at Destrehan High, pleaded guilty in 2009 to charges of malfeasance, intimidation of a witness and simple battery amid accusations that he had sex with a 16-year-old student and tried to kiss a 17-year-old student, both females.
For her part, Miller said, she has logged more than 360 reported cases in the news of teachers arrested for either sexual offenses or possession of child pornography so far in 2014.
“If this were an uncle, if this were a neighbor doing the exact same thing to these children, it would be called child molestation,” she said, referring to the Kenner incident. “If it were a priest, it would be called child sex abuse. To refer to it as a tryst or a relationship, that gives the perception that the child is knowingly complicit, and the child is not.”
More training needed
Experts believe that school districts nationwide could do more to train teachers to spot potential warning signs of sexual abuse that their colleagues may exhibit.
“Once we start to teach teachers about what you would see if somebody was being inappropriate with a student, they’re much more likely to then be able to notice it and say something,” Shakeshaft said.
As for why teachers engage in sexual behavior with students, experts and others can only speculate. Sometimes they’re pedophiles, preferring to prey on young people, but typically it’s for the thrill or excitement that comes with filling some other void, be it emotional, sexual or both, even though it’s at the student’s expense, Shakeshaft said.
“Most of the time we’re not talking about pedophiles. We’re talking about people who are opportunist abusers, who have an opportunity to have sex or some kind of quasi-sexual relationship, and it’s fun and exciting,” she said. “They think to themselves, ‘This person’s old enough’ or ‘I don’t really care; this is fun.’ Most of them know it’s wrong, but most of them rationalize it away.”
On Thursday, Respess’ attorney, Jeffrey Smith, said she “has obviously not admitted to any wrongdoing.”
Smith said he was still reviewing the case, but he said the alleged victim has since turned 17, which is the legal age of consent in Louisiana. “Let’s put it this way: It’s not like the person is 13 or 14 and we know for a fact that he’s not going to be 17 for years,” he said.
Law is specific
But Louisiana law goes further for educators, prohibiting sexual contact between a teacher and a student when the student is under 21 and the age difference between the pair is more than four years, according to a law passed in 2009.
“Teachers should not be having sex with high school students, period. That’s an abuse of authority regardless of the age gap,” said Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Tulane Law School.
She added: “I think we always need to check our assumptions about cases like this and think about this: If the genders were reversed, we would be pretty outraged if teachers in a position of authority were sleeping with 16-year-old girls. We wouldn’t be congratulating the girls on their conquest.”
Kondkar, the Loyola sociology professor, said he believes the case is “much more nuanced and complex.” He said that the “wider the age gap, the more we find it outside the norm, and to the extent that there are negative effects for kids who are introduced to this a little earlier, the younger they are, the most lasting the effects would be.”
In fact, Kondkar said, the close proximity in age between the student and the teachers blurs the lines for some observers when they try to size up the situation.
“We come up with these ideas about immaturity and attach it somewhat arbitrarily when we say 16,” he said. “The fact that he was so close to 17 makes it all the more, I suppose, complicated, and people’s reactions are a little bit more somewhere in the middle because of that. If it were a 12-year-old boy or a 13-year-old boy, we’d be having a very different conversation.”
Both Respess and Dufresne are due in court for a status conference on Nov. 17.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.