Waterloo Road: how much protection does a 17-year-old need?

Yesterday, the last in the present series of Waterloo Road, the BBC school soap, aired, and it featured the climax of two separate stories, that of Denzil and his death-defying stunts which nearly killed an older boy who tried to save him, and that of Francesca Montoya and Jonah Kirby, who have been carrying on an affair, on and off, for most of the series, who eloped to Gretna Green and married, before being arrested on exiting the registry office. This is the story that was most interesting to me, as there were two related stories in the news recently, and it’s an issue I’ve written about on this blog before.

Francesca Montoya, known as Cesca, was the Spanish teacher, and was approached by sixth-former Jonah Kirby, whose father was something of a disciplinarian who distrusts schools anyway and had attempted to home-school them before being persuaded to enrol Jonah and his younger sister Ruth. Cesca initially rebuffed Jonah’s advances, but eventually they fell in love and slept together at Cesca’s house, resulting in her becoming pregnant. She nearly aborted their baby, but decided she could not go through with it, and they resolved to get married. Unfortunately for them, various pupils became aware of the situation, and when she was rushed to hospital towards the end of the last episode, Jonah rushed to be at her side. They were discovered together by Mr Mead (who had, earlier in the series, been sleeping with the head-teacher’s daughter) and taken back to see said headteacher, who called both Jonah’s father (who dragged him out of the building) and the police, who arrested Montoya, who was charged, and bailed on the condition she does not see Jonah. However, they elope, Mead follows them and calls the police again, and although they have time to marry, Montoya is re-arrested in her wedding dress as soon as the ceremony is done.

As ever, there are a few absurdities in the storyline. Someone of Spanish origin would be called Francisca, not Francesca (that’s Italian). If a parent really dragged a pupil away as violently as Jonah’s dad did in the last-but-one episode, in front of several members of staff, the school really would have to intervene, yet they did not. While Gretna Green (and other Scottish registry offices) do conduct marriages for under-18s without their parents’ permission, they do require birth certificates or passports as proof of nationality; they did not do that here. And I cannot see the police coming as mob-handed as they did in last night’s episode to arrest one person and escort another home, neither of whom were believed to be armed.

For anyone wondering why this was illegal, and not just a matter of in-school discipline, the age of consent when one party is a pupil and the other is a teacher is 18, not 16. This was introduced in the 2000 Sexual Offences Act as a compromise to allow the age of consent for gay males to be reduced to 16; the argument had been that, if such acts were legal at 16, boys that age would be vulnerable to predation by older men. (The same is true in Canada, under legislation introduced in 2008.)

There have been a couple of news stories about this in the past few weeks. The most recent was this week and involved an assistant head-teacher who styled himself the “Salford Stallion”, who was sleeping with two girls without each other knowing, and his behaviour was discovered when one of the girls arrived at his flat to find it “festooned with rose petals, balloons and bondage equipment intended for the other girl”. He also admitted making indecent images of children (by videoing his sexual acts with the girls); the acts took place in his office at the school, in the sports hall, in a pub car park, and on school trips. He was jailed for six years in total. The other was a female teaching assistant named Leah Davies, who got a 12-month suspended sentence and a two-year supervision order for sleeping with a 15-year-old boy who was said to have been a gregarious young man who initiated the act and was certainly not a victim. None of the reports mention that she was told to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register (they do not regarding Christopher Drake either, but his offences were much more serious, as reflected in his jail term; still, news reports normally mention that someone has been required to register).

After an earlier case in which a young female music teacher was jailed for carrying on an affair with a female pupil, aged 15 at the outset, the teacher and author Francis Gilbert wrote an article for the Daily Mail in which he suggested that such behaviour was much more common than might be imagined, giving the example of a man who was given to sexually harassing girl pupils at the school where they both worked, and was suspected of taking pupils home and taking “inappropriate” pictures of them, though this was never proved. The man got away with it because he was foreign, and the school refused to investigate, putting his behaviour down to “cultural differences”. This is, of course, ridiculous: such behaviour is not normal in any culture. He also denounced what he called “the weak, reckless, selfish irresponsible teachers who allow themselves to enter into what they pathetically describe as ‘romantic’ relationships with pupils”, in other words, the real-life Montoyas.

I think we can distinguish between the genuine exploiters and outright sleaze-bags, such as Christopher Drake, and those who have relationships with the pupils out of school time where there is genuine affection on both sides. Quite simply, there is no victim in a lot of these cases besides the angered parent and embarrassed head-teacher. The case of Montoya and Kirby is fiction, but I fail to see why it should merit a prison sentence when she initially resisted, refused to abort the baby, when she could have saved her own skin by crying rape, when she had tried to save face for everyone concerned by leaving suddenly, and when both parties were clearly committed to each other. Perhaps I am reading too much into it; this particular case is, after all, only fiction, but the mitigating factors are so considerable that it should be unthinkable to lock her up. The maximum sentence for assisting a suicide, for example, is 14 years, but almost nobody ever gets it and, where there are extreme circumstances, people get non-custodial sentences or are not prosecuted. And that’s where lives are lost, not gained.

It’s also been asked why female sex offenders are generally treated more leniently than male ones, particularly when the “victim” is male. The simple answer is that a woman is less able to coerce a physically mature teenage boy to have sex, and that the social consequences for him are likely to be less serious — he is more likely to be called a “ladies’ man” or a “Casanova”, while the girl is more likely to be called a slut. Having had more experience with teenage boys than I really cared to, I find it rather amusing that anyone thinks a (healthy and able-bodied) mid-teenage boy is in any need of protection from women. Many (though not all) boys that age would regard such an encounter as a conquest, a “score”. They would not feel violated or used by the experience. They are often at the top of the pile within their school community, and there are likely to be a number of children in the school who are in more need of protection from them than they are from any 20-something woman — and quite possibly aren’t getting it. I certainly didn’t.

There are, of course, circumstances where this type of behaviour simply shouldn’t be tolerated; one is where the teacher was there to counsel a pupil who was in an emotionally vulnerable state, as was the case with one of Drake’s victims. We do not allow doctors to conduct sexual relationships with their patients, even when they are adults, and there is a case to be made for banning any sexual activity between students and teachers on the grounds of academic integrity, such as eliminating the possibility of favouritism and coercion. But this should be a matter of institutional discipline, not criminal law. Sixth formers are at school or college voluntarily and (unless the government decides to raise the school leaving age) can leave any time and get a job, and can come and go as they please from the school or college as long as they attend their lessons, so it makes no sense that their tutors (whose professional relationship with them is much looser, and whose time spent with them is much less, than that of teachers of secondary-age pupils) are expected to treat them as children in that one regard. Tutors are not in the same position of power over a sixth-form student as a correctional or health worker is over an inmate or a patient, and the employers the young people might otherwise work for are not under any of these restrictions, despite having the power to terminate their livelihood.

This does not mean I would expect schools to approve of teachers carrying on with sixth-formers, but neither should we use the full force of the law on what are essentially victimless crimes. Unless there is evidence of coercion, trickery like Drake’s or a history of inappropriate behaviour that is revealed when the scandal comes to light, a first offence of this type should result in nothing more than dismissal for that teacher, and certainly no suggestion of prison or the sex offenders’ register. That ought to be reserved for those who really are a danger to the public, which cannot be said about some of the people involved in these incidents.

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