Teacher-Student Couple Embrace Notoriety
FIRST, the disgraced teacher caught our attention with a sensational new book. Heather Ingram - convicted three years ago of sexually exploiting a minor after her affair with a teen she taught in high school in Sechelt, B.C. - gave a steamy account of her career-ending romance in the recently published, Risking It All: My Student, My Lover, My Story. But the student quickly outstripped the teacher. Last week, the youth, whose identity had been protected by a publication ban, successfully asked the courts to allow him to publish his name. "I pursued my teacher, I seduced her," he told reporters outside a Vancouver courthouse, where he arrived in Ingram's SUV with an entourage of friends and a pit bull. Dusty (Straight A) Dickeson, now 21, wants to tell the world he is no victim. And he wants to say it in a song. In gangsta rap, on a CD titled Teacher Scandal, to be precise. The lyrics tell the story: Sunshine Coast/Teacher scandal/Nothing in the world that I can't handle.
No longer a couple but still friendly, Ingram and Dickeson are embracing the notoriety they once shunned. Ingram is helping her former student write his own book; the one-time accounting teacher is also handling offers for the movie rights to their story. It's a chance to cash in. But the attention also gives Ingram, who stood mute before the female judge who called her "an affront to society," an opportunity to lash out at a legal system she believes treated her unjustly. Ingram, who was 29 at the time, acknowledges that her sexual relationship with the then 17-year-old Dickeson - she uses the pseudonym "Troy" in her self-exposé - was unprofessional; she realized she could lose her job and her teaching licence. But she remains angry that the relationship, which she insists was consensual, provoked a police investigation, a trial and her eventual conviction as a sex offender. "I did not exploit Troy," she writes in Risking It All. "I did not in any way coerce him into our relationship. I believe he knew what he was doing when he pursued me, that he did love me."
The idea that a woman like Ingram could sexually assault a street-smart youth would likely have been dismissed outright a decade ago. Such liaisons rarely got beyond the rumour mill, let alone into the courts. In fact, Ingram was one of the first females to be charged under Section 153 of the Criminal Code, introduced in 1985, which makes it an indictable offence for a person in a position of trust or authority to have any sexual contact - consensual or not - with a person under 18. As outrage over her case, and those of about a dozen other female teachers across Canada charged under the law, makes clear, women are now considered potential sexual predators.
Several forces are pushing that shift in societal attitudes. First, there is a heightened awareness of child sex abuse in general. "It's thanks to the advocacy of the women's movement and the struggle women had for 30 years that we're talking about it now," says Fred Mathews, director of research for the Toronto Children's Mental Health Centre and author of a 1996 Health Canada report on the victimization of male children. Second, as authorities learn more about the crime and its perpetrators, there's growing recognition that both genders are vulnerable to - and capable of - sexual abuse. Some studies suggest that females commit as many as 20 per cent of sexual violations against children, mostly boys. As a result, it has become easier for males to report abuse. "Society and police agencies are much more receptive to complaints," notes Vancouver lawyer Bill Smart, who represented Ingram.
The fact that Dickeson initiated the sex is irrelevant. It didn't matter that he was only five months shy of his 18th birthday when he and Ingram began their affair. It didn't matter that his mother approved of the relationship. Under the law, he was a victim. Smart believes the female judge who convicted Ingram wanted to make her an example by giving her the "fairly heavy" sentence of 10 months of house arrest, 120 hours of community service and a year's probation. The message is clear, says the lawyer: "This is criminal and we as a society don't want teachers, no matter how sophisticated the students appear, having sexual relations with them."
There are strong reasons why the law assumed the authority to step in and protect students - even against their will. Consent is notoriously difficult to determine in sexual offence cases. The issue is further complicated by the fact that some minors may fear reprisals from the abuser. As well, experts say even older teens may not have the emotional maturity to know if they are being exploited. And while boys - or their parents - may now be more inclined to report such incidents, it can still go against the macho grain to complain of sexual assault, especially when the predator is a woman. "We don't know if there is coercion or if they're going along with it to save face," says Mathews, author of The Invisible Boy: Revisioning the Victimization of Male Children and Teens. "What's a 17-year-old boy going to say - 'Oh, I was overwhelmed by a girl?' "
At the core of the debate over male victims lies the touchy issue of gender stereotypes. "One of the problems we have is a mythology in our culture that it's an initiation into manhood to be seduced by an older woman," says Mathews. The old double standard - revulsion at a male who preys on a young girl and tacit approval when a female seduces an adolescent male - may be under siege, but it has yet to be wiped out. "I don't know how to say this without being politically incorrect," says John Lyons, a University of Saskatchewan education professor, "but a Grade 11 boy who is hit upon by his female teacher typically does not complain. I doubt very much that you would find young women who would feel that way." Some parents, too, are reluctant to drop their admittedly old-fashioned views. Outside the Mississauga Private School in Toronto's west end, a father of two teenaged boys said he wasn't concerned that one of the institution's young teachers had been suspended following allegations she had sex with a 17-year-old student. "I would feel differently if I had a daughter," he said, while asking that his name not be used. "I'm not saying it's right, but with girls, it's different."
Ingram's case also highlights society's difficulty in deciding when childhood ends and adult responsibilities begin. In most Canadian jurisdictions, teens can start driving at 16 and join the armed forces at 17. As well, the courts have considerable leeway in dealing with young offenders. "There is a dichotomy," says Owen Wigderson, a Toronto lawyer who represented a female teacher acquitted of sexual exploitation. "On the one hand, you are too young to decide on a sexual partner. On the other, there is a law that says if you have committed a crime when you are 13 or 14, you could be treated as an adult."
At what point does a teen become capable of deciding with whom to sleep and when? It's easy to denounce American elementary school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who slept with one of her Grade 6 students, for shattering the innocence of a 13-year-old. But what about older teens who pursue teachers? Should they be held accountable for their behaviour? The law says no. "These debates are always polarized," says Toronto high-school teacher Joe Polito. "People are totally advocates for the kid or totally advocates for the teacher, and it's way too complicated for that." Polito, the father of three twentysomethings, argues that the ultimate responsibility always rests with the teacher. "But I certainly don't look on the kids as 100-per-cent victims," he says. "They must know there is something wrong with that kind of relationship."
The reality of Canadian schools is far removed from the sexually charged classrooms of the popular TV drama Boston Public. But, according to some teachers, teens are increasingly precocious. "Kids know more about sex than we ever did," says a 44-year-old female Kingston, Ont., high-school teacher. She adds that she's seen a steady - and troubling - decline in the formality that once separated students and teachers. And teens, naturally, like to test boundaries. One Ontario teacher, right out of teacher's college, says a female colleague had to fend off the advances of a junior high student so aggressive he was eventually suspended for his behaviour.
Educators across the country are taking tough new measures to protect students - and to avoid the hefty civil suits some victims have launched against school boards. "We would like to reduce sexual abuse cases to zero," says Doug Wilson, head of the Ontario College of Teachers. Last fall, Wilson made an unprecedented tour of 15 communities, briefing teachers, union and school board officials on the college's new guidelines, which warn teachers to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. They urge teachers to avoid sending e-mails to individual students and ask them to watch colleagues for signs of a sexual enticement. For transgressors, the penalties are stiff - and embarrassing. Criticized for past cover-ups, the college now holds disciplinary hearings in public and posts names on the Internet.
While no one believes it's appropriate for a teacher to have a sexual relationship with a student, even a willing one, the staunchest of child advocates say teachers may be singled out unfairly. Some critics say the Ontario college is over-reacting - going further than the courts in its treatment of errant teachers. "They sacrifice the individual teacher for the image of the profession," says James Battin, who represented Amy Gehring - the substitute teacher acquitted of indecent assault in England - when she returned to Canada. Even though she volunteered to give up her provincial teacher's licence, the college held a disciplinary hearing (Gehring refused to attend) and banned her from teaching for 10 years. Battin calls the college's procedures unjust: "In a criminal court, 90 per cent of the evidence they used would not be admissible because it's all hearsay and rumour."
While most teachers welcome the new guidelines, some worry that they will encourage students to lay false accusations. "The chill is picked up by perceptive kids and it can be used viciously," says the Kingston teacher. "An accusation on the part of a student - it doesn't matter if it's true - and that teacher is gone." In fact, teachers are acquitted in about 98 per cent of cases, according to Montreal lawyer Jean Dury. He has represented dozens of Quebec teachers falsely accused of sexual assault, and knows of two who committed suicide because of such allegations. Mathews understands the dilemma. "We want to protect our young from the very few teachers who may cause harm. We also want to protect the innocent teacher from being charged and labelled."
Psychological profiles of female teachers who indulge in sexual misconduct with students show they're typically socially immature rather than sexually deviant. It's an assessment that Ingram accepts. "I believe it was low self-esteem that enabled me to cross the teacher-student line and betray my professional responsibility," she writes. She traces her poor self-image back to her parents' divorce, her mother's mental illness and her own insecurities as a teen. She also blames her common-law marriage, in which she felt "chronically unworthy." With Troy, she explains, "I felt sexual and desirable."
Ingram is rebuilding her life. She has a new job at an environmental firm in Gibsons, B.C., a house and a few dedicated friends. The book is attracting attention and the movie could happen. And Dickeson, the would-be rap star, is preparing to tell the world in his own book how not being a victim got him where he is.
Maclean's May 19, 2003