A former teacher at Mary G. Montgomery High School who pleaded guilty last week to having sex with a student is the latest in growing list of educators convicted of similar crimes, but the prosecutor in the case can’t say definitively whether it is part of trend.
“I think that like so much of child sex abuse, people are more willing to come forward at this point and are more willing to report it to the authorities,” said Nikki Patterson, assistant district attorney for Mobile County. “I don’t know if it’s more common or just reported more often.”
In a plea agreement, 28-year-old Alicia Gray was convicted last week of engaging in a sexual act or deviant sexual intercourse with a student under 19 years old. She was originally charged last February with second-degree sodomy and second-degree sexual abuse but with her plea, received a suspended sentence of 10 years, six months served and five years’ probation.
Since 2010, Alabama has had a law on the books specifically targeting teachers accused of sexual misconduct with students and it essentially overrides the age of consent law, Patterson said. The student in the Gray case was reportedly 14 at the time of the crime, but under previous laws, students over the age of 16 could theoretically consent to sex with teachers.
“It basically outlaws an employee of a school having a sexual relationship with a student under the age of 19 whereas ordinarily, a minor can consent to sex at age 16,” Patterson said. “If offers a lot more protection in that it ups the age so that all high-schoolers are covered where they would not be under other statute.”
But prior to the law’s implementation, several other teachers in Mobile and Baldwin were convicted on similar charges.
• In 2012, Nathan Blaylock, a former teacher at Saraland High School was sentenced to two years’ probation for sending text messages of a sexual nature to a 17-year-old student. He will also have to register as sex offender.
• Also in 2012, Darrell La Void Tyler, a teacher at the Continuous Learning Center in Mobile, was sentenced to 15 months in a federal prison for sending a 13-year-old student naked pictures of himself. Tyler has been released and is currently registered as a sex offender.
• Charles Lewis, a former teacher at Causey Middle School, died of natural causes in 2010 before he went to trial on allegations that he exposed himself to one student on school grounds and sexually abused another, 9-year-old boy in Baldwin County.
• Across the bay, Bryan Christopher Pettibone, a teacher at Central Baldwin Middle School was sentenced to 20 years in 2010 for enticing four students for immoral purposes, sex abuse and attempted sex abuse. He is still incarcerated.
There are few published reports or studies about the prevalence of sexual abuse in the K-12 school system, but in 2012, veteran journalist and crime author Rebecca Morris published a book calling the subject an “epidemic.”
“Epidemics refer to incidents where new cases exceed what is expected beyond the norm,” she said. “Definitely the reporting of these cases has increased but are there also more incidents? Probably both are true.”
Ever since the publicity surrounding the Mary Kay Letourneau case in 1997, the media has been paying closer attention to the subject, Morris said, but generally treats female offenders differently than their male counterparts. Morris spoke of a “double standard” in student/teacher sex cases, where incidents normally seen as abhorrent if committed by a male faculty member are treated lighter when a female is the offender.
“Male sex abusers are demonized while women are eventually diagnosed,” she said, adding that either way, her research didn’t indicate a sentencing disparity between the sexes. “Most female teachers lose everything. Their marriage, their families and children and are registered sex offenders the rest of their lives. But we’re very interested in why as a woman, she would risk everything.”
Morris said her book cites a 10-year-old Department of Education report concluding that as much as 40 percent of reported sexual assaults at schools were committed by women. She said in the cases she examined, most offenders were either bipolar, have experienced depression or low self esteem and have a general “emotional immaturity.” Many come from troubled families or have been abused as children.
“They treat their students as their peers and don’t have very strong boundaries,” Morris said. “They need attention and they need friendships and they think they find that with their students. If they are hungry for love and attention and if they are indeed bipolar or depressed, often that leads to impulsive behavior including hypersexuality.”
After her conviction, Gray released a bizarre apology video though her church, admitting that she had “insecurities” and “pain in my own heart and a void I needed to fill” that led to her transgressions, but concluded the person she was is “gone and changed forever thanks to the mercy of Jesus Christ.”
Morris said in her research, immature boys who have sexual relationships with female adults were more likely to later abuse drugs or alcohol, more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system, more likely to drop out of school and attempt suicide and more likely to sexually victimize others.
“It’s not a victimless crime and very similar to risks that girls are put at,” Morris said. “It’s very complicated because we have a opinion of male pedophiles as terrible and horrible and creepy, but when women do the same thing, we create things like websites about hot teachers.”
Patterson said schools have a mandatory requirement to report suspected sex abuse to law enforcement or departments of human resources. In Grey’s case, school officials contacted the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and the district attorney’s office brought forth testimony and phone records supporting the allegations.
Patterson noted Gray’s conviction also resulted in the loss of her teaching credentials and includes a stipulation that she can never work with children again. She must also register as a sex offender.
“We represent the citizens of Mobile County so we have to look at the potential harm to other people,” she said.
Rebecca Morris is also the author of “Ted and Ann – The Mystery of a Missing Child and Her Neighbor Ted Bundy,” and (with Gregg Olsen) of “If I Can’t Have You – Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children,” coming from St. Martin’s in May. Read more at rebeccatmorris.com.