These female educators, who've sexually abused their young students, are getting lighter sentences than the Black Atlanta teachers. Why do they get to be “innocent”?
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Action expresses priorities.”
One has to look no further than America’s (in)justice system to recognize its priorities. And the public good and equal justice under the law are as illusive as a post-racial America. While a group of Black Atlanta educators were sentenced to up to seven years for inflating student test scores, White female teachers continue to suffer minimal consequences for raping their students.
Last week The New Orleans Advocate reported that 32-year-old Shelley Dufresne, a high-school teacher who had a threesome with a 16-year-old student, agreed to a plea deal that will allow her to avoid prison time or having to register as a sex offender. Instead, she’ll have to pay a $1,000 fine and complete 90 days of mental-health treatment.
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 24-year-old math teacher Kaitlyn Granado was arrested twice in one month for allegedly having sex in the back of her car with students.
The Daily Record reported last Monday that Nicole McDonough, a 32-year-old English teacher at West Morris Mendham High School in New Jersey, applied for a pre-trial intervention program which would allow her to meet a number of conditions, escape prison, and spare her a criminal record. She is accused of having sex with one student, and an inappropriate relationship with two others.
Another teacher, Brianne Altice, faces a total of 14 felony charges, including rape, forcible sodomy, forcible sexual abuse, unlawful sexual activity with a minor and dealing in materials harmful to a minor, according to The Deseret News. Altice accepted compliments like “you’re sexy” from students in front of their peers, confided with the victims about her marital problems, and met the teens for sexual encounters in parking lots, parks and her home. And there are other recent cases, like a 35-year-old AP calculus teacher Erica Ann Ginnetti, outside of Philadelphia, and Diane Blankenship, 45, in Tampa Bay.
This comparison is not an effort to justify or minimize the very real issues around the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. But you can’t help but see the dynamics of how race, sexuality, power, and exploitation collide to keep White women where they’ve always been: protected on top by their White male patriarchs. And as the above cases reveal, even those White women accused of sex crimes against children are afforded a pathway to redemption.
Zimbio, which compiled the most notorious sex scandals, reports, “Beginning with the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case in 1995, Americans have been fascinated with female teachers who cross the line and have sexual relationships with their students.” Letourneau served time in prison for raping the then-12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. As soon as she was released, she resumed a relationship with Fualaau. Today, they have two teen daughters, and have just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary. Network news television has celebrated their love and family with countless interviews. Talk about American Exceptionalism.
While male teachers are more likely to commit statutory rape, the media has its own love affair with White women committing the same crime. Zimbio states that, “According to an AP study, between 2001 and 2005, 2,570 educators had their teaching credentials revoked, denied, surrendered, or sanctioned following allegations of sexual misconduct. While only 10 percent of those teachers were women, female teachers who have slept with their students receive the lion’s share of media attention.”
The Zimbio roundup includes only one Black woman and one Latina woman—the other 48 are White, young and generally considered attractive. This is about desirability politics, isn’t it? It’s about the ways in which female sexual desirability is socially and culturally constructed through discourses of superiority, power and ultimately, control. Is it possible for White women to even imagine that someone might not want them?
The pornification of these crimes propels the news media casting straight from Baywatch, turning these incidences into spectacles of pleasure. These women always appear hot and photogenic in their mug shots. These images shape the discussion of these crimes. Look no further than the comment sections and there you’ll find posts by men who express their wish that their teachers had slept with them. (Surely one of them is developing a Tinder site for “Students hot for teachers” right now.)
This sick mind-set and racist, sexist hypocrisy was celebrated on the April 11 episode of Saturday Night Live featuring Empire star Taraji P. Henson as a hapless prosecuting attorney trying in vain to get the teen boy on the stand to testify, before a Black judge, against the beautiful young teacher who raped him. The kid can’t seem to find a single negative thing to say about his sexual relationship with his teacher. His teacher is coy and flattered by his testimony. And the judge is too impressed by the kid’s prowess and declarations of pleasure, to do his job.
The good news is that Twitter lit up with criticism of the sketch. As Daily Mail reported, “After the show aired on Saturday, disgusted viewers expressed their dismay on social media. Model Me Not wrote: ‘I’m actually offended by this “hot for teacher” skit on #SNL … sends the wrong message about sexual abuse. Not cool. Not funny.’ Kimberly Stolarick added: ‘That HLN student-teacher sketch on SNL was gross and unnecessary.’ Laurel Krahn also condemned the show, saying: ‘Wishing Taraji was hosting a well-written episode of SNL or at least one without a sketch making fun of rape.’”
I can’t help but wonder how Taraji—who was in the news weeks ago as a concerned mom wanting to transfer her teen son to the Historically Black Howard University when she suspected that he was being profiled by University of Southern California campus police—would react if her son had been sexually abused by one of his high school teachers. (When video proved Taraji’s fears unfounded, she publicly apologized to the Glendale campus police.)
Can you imagine what Fox News and Don Lemon would have to say about Black women teachers engaging in similar behavior to these White teachers? Or Black male students celebrating this criminal activity? We know hip-hop and single mothers would be central to their commentary. But for White women, fantasies are fulfilled.
The spectacle of White women teachers sexually abusing their students reveals the stark differences and racist disparities in how White and Black suspects are routinely viewed and described in the media. So it’s no wonder that almost none of these news reports or social media commentaries call these women what they are: rapists and sexual predators of minors. Those terms are more commonly used when male teachers are doing the exploiting. But White women are generally viewed, even in these situations, as “pure,” as “innocent,” with an undercurrent of the message that their beauty and allure are so powerful that it’s only natural to expect hormone-addled teens to not only succumb, but to welcome the twisted experience. In the end, they are the victims.
Take, for example, the “romance” website Tango.com, which published an insane piece to explain this sick form of pedophilia, trying to justify the crime by citing the “arrested emotional development” of the teachers. “Most of these women appear to be vibrant, normal, healthy adult women, but they may feel like teenagers themselves inside,” the piece states, citing the psychological term “counter-transference” to say that the teachers think the students they’re abusing are their peers.
All that just smells like the typical justification for any White criminal—you know, the bullshit focus on the psychological issues that make it all but inevitable that they’ve committed this crime; forgive them for what they did, they had no control. The presumption of innocence is never afforded to Black suspects whose criminal tendencies are seen innate. The need to explain why a Black woman accused of a crime may have done it is virtually nonsexist, meaning that both sympathy and explanation are few and far between.
This is about the cultural and historic power afforded to White women. Their sexual relations with minors is portrayed as inevitable, a result of the desirability and powers of seduction of the angelic White woman.
Like America’s pancake nostalgia, we are still stuck in the 19th-century narrative. Throughout history, Miz Anne was hoisted onto the pedestal of White feminine purity and magnetic sexuality so irresistible that countless Black men had to be killed after Emancipation for fear of the mere possibility that they might not be able to stop themselves from ravaging her sexually. Claims that a Black man (or child) had looked at, spoke to, or, as in the famous case of 14-year-old victim Emmett Till, for whistling in the presence of the all-powerful yet perpetually helpless White female led to countless murders and lynchings.
And while the racial backgrounds of the teen victims in the contemporary cases are rarely alluded to or mentioned in news coverage, that’s not the main point. The point is that the legal system is not fully committed to criminalizing and punishing these women. They are the victims – of their own beauty, of their sexual allure, of thrusting them into a classroom with a group of boys with raging hormones.
While a handful of Black educators will serve time in jail, the narrative rarely sees these White women teachers as criminals, and FELONS; they are not portrayed as pathological, as pedophiles. They are rarely presented as threats to our children, as manipulative predators who groom their young victims, just as their male counterparts are known to do. Rather than focusing on the abuse of power they are portrayed as angelic and sexually irresistible gifts to horny young and vulnerable teens. They are their teachers in the classroom and in the bedroom.
It is clear that people still seem to consider these stories mildly “naughty” and “tantalizing” without considering the abuse dynamic at play; the crime and the victims are erased. We see the ways that the sexualization of White women upholds mainstream beauty standards, which are grounded in White Supremacy. We recognize the sexism in the media narratives, which views these women so differently than if they were men, or women of color. We see the power of a racist right-wing element undertone warning that “this is what happens when you let good White women out of the house.” This is why the media focuses so much on White women teachers as Black women are imagined as neither sexually irrespirable nor worthy of the privileges of patriarchy.
This brings me back to Atlanta.
The Atlanta Public Schools teachers are facing hard prison time. Their situation reminds us how the presumptions of innocence and guilt work in a racist system, and how the narrative of who deserves and can find redemption keeps the scales of justice in a state of imbalance to serve the inequality that keeps our legal system intact.
During their sentencing, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter declared that their forging test answers was “the sickest thing that has ever happened in Atlanta.” Really, dude? Sicker than segregation? Sicker than lynching? Sicker than teachers sexting, raping, performing oral sex and sodomy on high-school kids?
Of course it is sick, Your HONOR—anyone trying to defy White supremacy by giving children of color a leg up in a system intentionally designed for them to fail is “a sick thing.” Protecting White supremacy, not children from predators masquerading as teachers, is as American as apple pie.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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