Lafave Signs Plea
Former middle school teacher Debra Lafave leaves the Hillsborough County Courthouse Tuesday morning.
Published: Nov 23, 2005
TAMPA - On Monday night, the teen's family said they'd had enough.
Over the past 17 months, details about his case were printed in magazines and newspapers and aired on television news shows and morning radio. This week he was scheduled for a deposition where a defense attorney would pepper him with questions in preparation for trial.
On Dec. 5 the teen's former teacher, 25-year-old Debra Lafave, was to present her case to a jury, using an insanity defense to fight two charges that she sexually battered him.
He would have to testify.
The family asked prosecutors to offer Lafave a deal.
They did not want the teen to sit through the deposition. They did not want him to testify at trial. They did not want to wait two years for the resolution of similar charges in Marion County.
In a deal that includes three years of house arrest and seven years of sex-offender probation - a deal that has people across the country questioning whether a man would have received similar treatment - Lafave pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to two charges of lewd and lascivious battery. The plea also resolves the Marion County charges.
"There comes a point when I really had to weigh out what my son was going through and how much longer it would continue," said the teen's mother, who is not being identified because her son is an underage sex-assault victim. "I think what we agreed upon is a fair punishment, and I believe that she is taking responsibility for her actions now, and I hope she gets the help that she needs so she can move on with her life."
Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore said Lafave's sentence is not necessarily light. Sex-offender probation is intensive and difficult to complete. A violation could send her to prison.
"If someone makes their way through sex-offender probation, they probably deserve a break," Sinacore said. "More often than not, they do not make it."
Sinacore said a previous offer would have included three years in prison. Lafave and her attorney, John Fitzgibbons, turned it down, saying they were not interested in any offer that included prison. On Monday night, State Attorney Mark Ober visited the victim's family.
"He looked [the teen] in the eye and made sure this is what he wanted," Sinacore said. "They decided they did not want to go through this."
Her Day In Court
Tuesday morning was expected to begin with a routine hearing.
The first indication that the proceedings would be out of the ordinary was a behind-closed-doors meeting of Sinacore, Fitzgibbons and the judge. When they walked out, Fitzgibbons leaned down and whispered into Lafave's ear.
She responded with a bright grin.
Both sides, Fitzgibbons finally announced, had come to a resolution. A trial would be unnecessary. After Lafave signed the plea, she asked to speak. It was her first public comment since her arrest. "I apologize to the court, this young man and his family," she said. "I accept full responsibility for my actions, and I am very sorry for what has occurred."
In the next day or two, Lafave will work with the probation office to set up a schedule for her house arrest, Fitzgibbons said. She lives with her parents and hopes to get a job, which is allowed under house arrest.
Outside the courtroom, Lafave offered few words to describe her relief.
"I'm tired," she said.
According to court records, witnesses told investigators that Lafave's relationship with her student grew flirtatious as the 2003-04 school year came to an end. They kept in contact that summer via cell phones.
Prosecutors said Lafave had oral sex with the 14-year-old in her Riverview town house, then had intercourse with him in the portable classroom where she taught English at Greco Middle School.
During a trip to Ocala, they engaged in sex in the back of a sport utility vehicle, investigative records say. His aunt, who lives in Ocala, saw the pair standing in a parking lot and called his mother, who questioned her son.
At first the teen said a teacher drove him to Ocala, where she wanted to buy a present for her husband, the teen's mother said Tuesday. She said she was outraged that a teacher would drive a student to Ocala without parental permission.
"All I could think about was the breach of trust," she said.
When questioned further, the teen revealed the true story of their three-week relationship.
With the help of the Temple Terrace Police Department, the student made several tape-recorded calls to Lafave. On June 21, 2004, when the teen asked her to come to his house, she was arrested.
The teen's mother said she thanked God that the relationship did not last longer and that her son did not become more emotionally attached.
Her son, she said, now is excelling at sports while remaining an honor student. That is not unusual, she said. He always was a popular and well-grounded student.
The plea agreement also will help her son move on with his life. She said she did not want him to feel as though he helped put a woman in prison; if Lafave violates probation, prison will be her fault.
A Question Of Equity
At Greco Middle School on Tuesday, just before the final bell, parents queued along the curb to wait for their children.
"If I committed that kind of crime, I know good and well I'd be in jail," said Paul Smith, who was waiting for his grandson. "It ain't right. She should've served time."
Much media reaction was similar. Had she been a he, and had the young male student been a young female student, the case would have played out differently, said Joe Scarborough, of the MSNBC talk show "Scarborough Country."
Sinacore said gender played a role in the media attention - which helped push the victim's family toward a plea deal - but did not necessarily affect the sentence.
All too often, he said, victims of both genders do not feel they can go through a trial and testify. Prosecutors don't force sex victims to testify.
"Very often we've had to make decisions that do not include prison to spare the victim," he said. The local court system has a division devoted to sex crimes. Most of the cases involve children, Sinacore said. Every day, deals are reached that do not include prison time, he said.
Karen A. Duncan, a sex-assault therapist in Indianapolis who has studied women as sex offenders, said most of the population is unaware that sex offenders often receive light sentences. "The majority of sex offenders, even male sex offenders, do not go to prison," she said. "They go back to the community. That's why so many end up re-offending."
U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that up to 80 percent of sex offenders receive punishments other than prison, she said.
Sex offender treatment such as that dictated for Lafave is important, Duncan said. Treatment techniques, however, were tailored for male offenders, a problem because as many as 38 percent of sex offenders are women.
"Women have a different denial system," Duncan said.
It is harder for female sex offenders to admit they did something wrong. Society reinforces this with the stereotype that young boys are willing participants.
"Her being a beautiful woman also goes toward her denial," Duncan said. "She doesn't fit [the image of] the dirty old man on the street in a raincoat."
Reporter Ben Montgomery contributed to this report. Reporter Thomas W. Krause can be reached at (813) 259-7698.
OTHER CASES IN STATE
Here is a sample of sentences given to Florida educators convicted of inappropriate behavior with students.
Tammy Huggins, a former Citrus County High School teacher's aide, was sentenced this year to three years in prison and 12 years of probation for having sex with two teenage boys.
Dang Van Dinh, a former Boone High School science teacher in Orange County, was sentenced this year to five years in prison and 10 years of probation for having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female student.
Terrance T. Sneed, a former physical education teacher and track coach at Port St. Lucie High School, was sentenced this year to seven years in prison for having sex with a 14-year-old female student.
Roscoe Brown, a former teacher at Sarasota Christian School, was sentenced this year to five years in prison for fondling a 14-year-old female student.
Dennis L. Morrissey, a West Hernando Middle School social studies teacher, was sentenced this year to weekends in jail and five years of probation for fondling a 13-year-old student.
James A. Jensen, a former Central High School coach, was sentenced in 2004 to three years of probation for asking a 16-year-old student to perform oral sex.
Research by MELANIE O'BANNON and MICHAEL MESSANO
Here are some conditions of Lafave's sex-offender probation:
* Must be at home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
* Cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or other location where children gather.
* Can have no contact with the victim and no unsupervised contact with children.
* Must maintain a driving log and cannot drive alone.
* Must submit to an HIV test and give the results to the victim's family.
* Must wear an electronic monitoring device when the court deems necessary.
* Must forfeit her teaching certification for life.
* Cannot receive compensation, including book or movie deals, as a result of this case or through celebrity status.
No Jail Time
3 Years' House Arrest
7 Years' Probation