Student-teacher trysts take a toll
Experts say educators exert 'coercive control' in affairs with youths
Published 2:54 pm, Thursday, November 7, 2013
When her father found the text messages on the 17-year-old girl's phone in September, she pleaded with him.
But the texts told a different story, and the girl's father relayed it to the Fairfield Police Department.
The popular teacher had carried out a sexual relationship with a student 30 years his junior, police said. Investigators on Thursday charged Mishuck, who worked the last 12 years of his 20-year teaching career at Ludlowe, with 17 counts of second-degree sexual assault.
Hardly a unique headline, it was just the most recent story -- this past week -- of a teacher arrested for having a sexual relationship with a student. Two other unrelated investigations also culminated in the arrests of adults in authority positions who police say engaged in relationships with teens.
In one, a 25-year-old woman, a youth group leader at a church in New Caanan who is also a substitute teacher, was accused of having sex with a 15-year-old boy.
Morgan V. Frawley, of Fairfield, was charged with risk of injury to a minor and was released after posting $5,000 bond.
In the other, a respected college professor and community leader was accused of having a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old boy he met on the Internet.
Experts and state law say no matter the circumstances or the student's age, there cannot be consent in a sexual relationship between a high school student and a teacher.
"Even if they say yes, it's still not consent because a counselor, teacher, clergyperson, adult, whatever -- they have a level of power and control over that person, that teen or child. So they really cannot give consent," she said.
Mullins called it "coercive control," the pull that authority figures have on their wards, whether they realize it or not.
"It could be an implied threat. It could be just a feeling that someone feels special because this person is paying attention to them, and that is used as a way to manipulate and groom someone," she said.
Experts also say teachers, in particular, can have significant control over students with whom they become romantically involved, whether the students realize it or not.
"(The teacher) can make or break that student. That student depends on that teacher for grades," for letters of recommendation to college or scholarships, and they don't feel like they have the ability to say no in that situation," said Terri Miller, president of SESAME, a nonprofit organization that advocates for students victimized sexually by educators.
Students, meanwhile, can be "charmed" by the grooming process that plays on their vulnerabilities, ultimately building up trust between them and a teacher.
"They've used any vulnerabilities to create this false relationship. And the victim has perhaps a sense of trust in this person, and that's one of the biggest issues. ... The violation of that trust of an authority figure is detrimental," Mullins said.
Legislatures across the country subscribe to that school of thought.
While sexual relationships between adults and minors are illegal in every state, nearly half of the states in the country, including Connecticut, have laws that also prohibit teachers from having sexual relationships with students no matter their age, said John Thomas, a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law.
"A teacher really has such authority and privilege and power that any sexual relationship between teacher and student is deemed to be nonconsensual because of the nature of the relationship," Thomas said.
The law in Connecticut extends to all employees of a school district in which a student is enrolled.
These laws, which started appearing in the 1990s, have proved "controversial," Thomas said.
Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court deemed a similar law in that state unconstitutional because it infringed on an adult's rights. So far, the issue has not risen to the U.S. Supreme Court, Thomas said.
"I suspect it's a question that's slowly going there. More jurisdictions are seeing challenges to the statutes," he said.
"It's a question of whether the context of education is sufficiently compelling that the state could limit what would otherwise be your absolute rights."
But regardless of the legality, the context of a student-teacher relationship can inflict damage on the victim in a variety of forms.
When a teacher faces criminal charges as a result of the relationship, the victim may feel responsible.
"They feel embarrassment and also guilt. If this person gets in trouble, then they feel like, `Oh, I did this. I caused this,' " Mullins said.
While victims all react in their own way, in general Mullins and Miller said that victims isolating themselves from their peers, having difficulty with relationships or post-traumatic stress disorder are among the damages typical of these relationships -- even when a victim felt it was consensual at the time.
"That is even more confusing ... because this person is supposed to care about me, they're supposed to have my best interests at heart, and yet what they're doing is manipulating me," Mullins said.
"I don't realize I'm being manipulated at the time, and yet later on that betrayal can be devastating."
Even after the police got involved in the case of Fairfield Ludlowe teacher Mishuck and the student, Mishuck continued to contact her.
"Just know I have said nothing," he texted her after police tried to question him Oct. 6. "I have a pretty good idea what they know. Just know that I care about you and believe in you so much."