The alleged actions of two area teachers accused of having sex with students seem to be primarily crimes of opportunity, one expert said.
In one case, the teacher followed traditional patterns of building trust over several months, according to police, while the other appeared to develop relationships in weeks. Both are facing prosecution that would not have been possible a few years ago.
Edward M. Evans and Lauren Harrington-Cooper were both charged with institutional sexual assault, a law that would not have applied to them prior to December, 2011. That’s when Harrisburg expanded an existing law to make it a third-degree felony for teachers and coaches to have sexual relationships with students older than 16.
According to police, Evans, a social studies teacher at Hanover Area Junior/Senior High School, said he had been giving guidance to a student for several months.
The student, 18, claims when he asked about HIV testing, Evans picked him up and they went to Evans’ house, were they performed oral sex on each other. Evans, son of school board President Evelyn Evans, was put on unpaid leave pending a termination hearing.
Harrington-Cooper, a Wyoming Valley West English teacher, has been charged twice. The first charges in December alleged she shared inappropriate text messages with an 18-year-old student beginning Dec. 13, then had oral sex three times and intercourse twice with him, all in her car.
She was released on $25,000 bail, but charged again this month for similar conduct with a 17-year-old student over several weeks in November. She was jailed following the second charges.
Age of consent
In both cases, a few years ago, the teachers would almost certainly have been charged with the misdemeanor offense of corruption of minors because their victims were older than 16, the age of consent in Pennsylvania. They would have faced maximum sentences of 2-1/2 to 5 years in prison.
The institutional sexual assault law existed, but was aimed at abuse of inmates by jail guards and staff, according to Frank Cervone, head of the Support Center for Child Advocates.
The law was revamped in 2011 in response to a federal law known as the Adam Walsh Act of 2006, which was developed to ensure that all states had the same set of standards regarding the national sex offender registration and notification programs.
While reworking the law to comply with federal rules, state legislators expanded it to cover teachers, coaches and other staff in educational settings, with a maximum sentence of 3-1/2 to 7 years.
The expansion meant “just as an 18-year-old inmate essentially can’t consent to sexual assault by a jailer, regardless of age, a high school student can’t have sexual consent with a teacher,” Cervone said. “It’s still hands off because of the trust relationship.”
In a Phi Delta Kappa article last year, Virginia Commonwealth University educational leadership professor Charol Shakeshaft defined two predominate types of sex abusers in schools, dubbing them “fixated abusers” and “opportunistic abusers.”
The fixated abuser tends to focus on one student, offering extra time and attention in school work or extra praise and opportunity to show off what they’ve learned, gaining the student’s trust. The teacher’s affection slowly escalates to sexual abuse. The opportunistic abuser is less selective, taking “sexual advantage of a situation,” Shakeshaft wrote.
Police reports suggest Evans allegedly had some elements of the fixated abuser, offering guidance and advice to the student for months before sexual contact.
In fact, after the charges were filed, school board solicitor George Shovlin told the audience at a school board meeting that suspicions had first developed in March 2013, but an investigation did not find sufficient evidence for the district or police “to proceed any further.”
Harrington-Cooper, in contrast, seems to fit Shakeshaft’s opportunistic abuser label. These abusers “tend to be emotionally arrested and operate at a teenage level,” she wrote. According to police, Harrington-Cooper contacted one boy by asking his sister for his cellphone number, and contacted another after the student had left a note on her car.
Cervone said Shakeshaft’s labels and definitions sounded valid, but noted what she describes as “fixated abusers” almost exclusively prey on younger children, and that both Harrington-Cooper and Evans seem to have been opportunistic in their alleged crimes.
Shakeshaft cites a survey that found nearly 7 percent of students grades 8 t o 11 nationwide reported having physical sexual contact from an adult, most often a teacher or coach, in their school. Cervone said sexual abuse and child abuse in school are relatively rare, and cited the state Department of Public Welfare’s Annual Child Abuse Report for 2012, the most recent report.
Of 4,066 child abuse perpetrators reported in 2012 statewide, 2,281 — more than half — were fathers, mothers or other family members. Only 28 of the perpetrators were school staff.
Shakeshaft is in Indonesia for a conference, but in an email noted that educator abuse appears to be substantially under-reported. “In the studies we’ve done, only 9 percent to 11 percent of students who have been the target of educator sexual misconduct report.”
A Times Leader review of state records found at least 23 disciplinary actions by Pennsylvania Department of Education against teachers in Luzerne County schools from 2004. Of those, 2 were suspensions of teacher licenses being lifted and one was reinstatement of a surrendered license.
Of the 20 remaining actions, 10 listed some sort of involvement with students or minors. Five of those were described as “inappropriate” relations, contact, or communication with students. Another involved a teacher taking photos of eighth grade girls buttocks and groins using a cell phone under a table.
The other five were described as “criminal attempt to communicate with a minor,” “endangering the welfare of children,” “provided alcohol to a minor,” and “cruelty and intemperance due to physical and verbal abuse of students.”
The 2011 reworking of the law to make the line between student and teacher clearer and the penalties stiffer should be a strong deterrent to such behavior, Cervone said, particularly because the teachers, by definition, “are educated and trained in the field, so they will have heard about (the law).”
Teachers had already faced potentially stiff disciplinary action professionally independent of criminal penalties under the old system. The state Department of Education Professional Standards & Practices Commission has long had the authority to strip a teacher of their license for inappropriate relations with a student independent of criminal penalties.
Cervone said it’s important for parents and co-workers to pay attention when a teacher seems to engage in “repeated, unwarranted contact” with a single student. “Occasional texts from a teacher are not a red flag,” he said, “That’s how students communicate today, by text and social media. But when it gets to be a regular and frequent occurrence, it’s a fair question to ask what this adult is doing here, what’s he getting out of it?”
Annual teacher and staff training, clear guidelines as to what constitutes abuse, and firm, well publicized rules regarding the consequences — including reporting suspected cases to law enforcement — are the primary ways to prevent teacher abuse of students, Shakeshaft wrote.