Photo: Jonathan Barkat
Most of these women, experts say, don't go into teaching with plans to seduce a child, the way a classic pedophile does; what leads to their downfall is emotional immaturity. The youthful, hip teacher, after all, is often the popular one because students can easily relate to her. The problem is, she may relate too well. "I've had cases where a teacher starts out seeing a kid simply to tutor him, but soon they begin talking about their personal lives and what music they like, then they're listening to iPods together and texting each other, and suddenly it's like a dating relationship," says Robert J. Shoop, PhD, director of the Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership at Kansas State University and author of Sexual Exploitation in Schools. These teachers have a poor concept of boundaries, so they don't recognize when they've crossed the line into inappropriate behavior, says Shoop. Even as police handcuffed her, Debra Lafave, the 23-year-old Florida teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old student, admitted in an interview that she didn't feel she'd committed a crime—"I was thinking of [myself] as a young girl who just got caught with her boyfriend." In a lot of these cases, the woman thinks she has fallen in love. Perhaps some do: Notoriously, after serving several years in prison, LeTourneau married her student.
Such arrested development may result from having been sexually abused themselves as children, says Larry Morris, PhD, a Tucson-based forensic psychologist and author of Dangerous Women: Why Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters Become Stalkers, Molesters, and Murderers. "But most of these women come from conflict-ridden families where they didn't learn healthy social skills. Many learned to get their emotional needs—for love, attention, approval—met through sexual behavior." Once they start teaching, if faced with some kind of serious stressor (marital problems, for example) in addition to the right child sitting in their class, it's not a far leap to sex offender.
An impending divorce helped push 27-year-old Pamela Rogers into getting intimate with her 13-year-old student in 2004, says Joan Schleicher, a Nashville forensic psychologist who testified in court on her behalf. "She was demoralized and feeling empty inside, and he was the one to whom she could turn her attention." As the relationship progressed, Rogers (a former homecoming queen now serving an eight-year sentence) began, as many of these women do, to live in a world of "magical thinking," Schleicher says. "And she responded to that instead of the rules of society."
None of the experts condone the teachers' actions, but they do have sympathy. "I don't think she's a sexual predator," Schleicher says of Rogers. "I see her as a really hurting adult who needs help. I just hope she can get it."