When I was a prosecutor in the Special Assault Unit of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, I handled a high-profile case involving a teacher at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart—a private, Catholic, all-girls middle and high school in the greater Seattle area. The teacher, 48-year-old Deene Juncker, had used his position of influence and power over a student to manipulate her into a sexual and emotional relationship that forever changed the course of her life and that of her family. He was married at the time. The evidence against Juncker was damning, and in the end he had no real option but to plead guilty to two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor in the first degree; he was sentenced to the maximum of 20 months in prison and is now a registered sex offender.
This case came to mind when I saw a similar case from Maryland hit newsstands yesterday: 25-year old substitute teacher, Alexis Mercedes Boberg, was arrested after allegations surfaced that she had plied a high school student with alcohol and manipulated him into a sexual relationship with him in violation of Maryland law; she has been charged with sexual offense in the fourth degree.
Sadly, these cases are not isolated incidents. Many of us likely recall the infamous case of Mary Kay Letourneau, and during my time in the prosecutor’s office I handled or was aware of numerous cases like this where teachers or coaches took advantage of their position to lure children into sexual relationships they could not legally, rightly, or rationally consent to.
To be fair, most teachers are wonderful, hard-working, under-appreciated, and underpaid individuals—my mom was a teacher and, as many of her friends were as well, I grew up surrounded by them. I still have close relationships with several of them today. But we cannot deny that teachers hold a unique position of influence over our children, for better or for worse, and when that is for the worse, it can be devastating. So as a parent, what can we do to prevent this from happening to our child? Here are some tips:
1. Probably the most important thing we can do is maintain open lines of communication with our children around safety, sexuality, love, and relationships. It is important that we routinely convey both the facts and our values around these issues, but also leave space for our children to explore and develop their own values. If we hold space for them to speak openly and honestly about these things, and ask whatever questions they have, we set the stage to discuss issues that may arise with someone in a position of authority (or a peer, for that matter) without them feeling shame.
2. From the time our children are little, we should work to help them understand and establish appropriate boundaries. With respect to relational boundaries, it is important for our children to understand what a normal, healthy relationship with a teacher, coach, caregiver, priest, etc. looks like and consists of, so that they can identify when something feels outside those boundaries and notify you.
3. Most of the cases I encountered in this area involved a large element of online exchanges between teacher and student before any physical relationship took place; the new case from Maryland is no different. As your children grow and develop an online presence, whether through their own cell phone or a shared computer or other device, it is critical that parents have access to all the passwords for the devices, any installed apps, and any social media accounts used by the child. Parents should monitor activity, including texting, on those devices and accounts—regularly at first, and perhaps with increased infrequency as older teens demonstrate an ability to responsibly handle their online presence. Monitoring should never completely disappear, however, and your child should know that you can (and will) check in on their activity at any time. This is not about spying—it is about safety. At the same time, however, we should be teaching teens how to responsibly and safely navigate the online world.
4. Make sure you understand what the policy is for out-of-school contact between teachers/staff/coaches and students at your child’s school or athletic organization. Do they have clear rules on whether a teacher can contact a student outside school hours, and if so, on which platforms are they permitted to do so? If your child’s school does not have such a policy, work to ensure they adopt one. Schools should have clearly established rules around how, where, and why a teacher can electronically contact a student, whether they can be “friends” on social media, whether students can/should have a teacher’s cell phone number or private email address, and what hours are appropriate for teachers and students to be in contact with one another. Similarly, encourage your principal/school district to ensure that all teachers and staff have prevention training around issues of sexual abuse and clearly delineated steps that are taken if any of these rules are violated.
5. Pay attention to whether your student has new/expensive items that they did not purchase themselves, or whether you hear of your student regularly receiving small gifts, favors, or privileges from someone. In many of these cases, the teacher or coach provided their victims (as do many predators) with gifts, favors, or privileges, as a way of building trust and gaining influence. Teach your kids, tweens, and teens, that as a general rule, they should not accept gifts from others without clearing it with you, and certainly not from people in a position of authority. Explain that this goes outside the bounds of what a normal teacher/student relationship looks like.
6. Make sure, as your children grow, that you know who their friends are, who their friends’ parents are, and who they spend time with. Meet these people, speak often with them, and build a community with open communication so as to increase the chances that you’ll have access to your child and their life. Not only will this help you know what’s happening in their world, but it will also help you build and maintain a strong connection with them as they grow.
The odds of any given child being victimized by a teacher, staff-member, or coach are relatively slim, but knowing what to look out for, and how to help protect our children can go a long way toward keeping them safe. Both girls and boys can be taken advantage of, and the consequences can be life-altering for everyone involved. We need not live in fear, but taking a few precautions like these might just make the difference for your child or someone else’s. Every child deserves to grow up whole, healthy, and happy--let's do what we can to ensure that happens!
If you have questions about this or need any additional support around this or any other safety or parenting issue—help is just a click away. I offer free consultation calls, as well as strategy sessions and one-on-one parent coaching. All my coaching is done by phone or Zoom call, so you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your home, office, etc. And if you think this article might be helpful to someone else—please forward it to them and tag Savvy Parents Safe Kids so they can find their way back to us for more great content!