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Is there a double standard on sex cases?

James Van Valkinburgh, a former Sacred Heart Academy teacher, was ordered to serve up to nine years in prison after admitting he'd had sex with a 16-year-old student.

"Disgusting! What a nasty pig. They will never reform them either. Once a sexual predator always one!" someone wrote on topix.com, an Internet message board.

When Cara Dickey, a former South Buffalo Charter School teacher, was arrested earlier this month and accused of having sex with a 14-year-old student, the tone was different.

"[S]eriously, why weren't the teachers like this when I was in school?" another one commented on wgrz.com. "Kids are so lucky these days."

While any case involving teacher-student sex receives intense media and public attention, there is often a big difference in public reaction and legal action depending on the genders of the participants.

In the cases of male teachers and female students, the public often views the teacher as a predator and usually -- though not always -- considers the student a victim.

When the genders are reversed, however, many men remark that the student was lucky, and much of the online commentary centers on the teacher's looks.
"I think we still live in a chauvinistic society, where that young man is viewed almost as a hero, in getting himself an older, attractive woman. And it is that erroneous perception that fuels that disconnect," said Robert N. Convissar, a criminal attorney and former executive assistant district attorney in Erie County.

Some see a clear double standard, based on latent sexism or paternalism, that extends into the justice system.

"What happens is we tend to see the male defendant is treated much [more harshly]," said Paul A. Bender, a defense attorney who represented Van Valkinburgh in his criminal case.

In cases involving misbehaving teachers, any evidence of a trend that favors women is anecdotal at best, experts said.

However, women in general are less likely than men to be arrested and less likely to be convicted of a crime. They also receive shorter sentences upon a conviction, state crime data shows.

"Justice isn't gender blind any more than society is gender blind," said Cheryl Smith Fisher, a former assistant U.S. attorney now working in civil litigation.

A rash of cases involving teachers accused of improper relationships recently has made it into the public eye.

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said he believes it's not just that teacher misbehavior is more likely to be reported -- and covered in the media -- today than in the past.

"We seem to have an alarming increase of teacher-student relationships, that's for sure," Clark said.

An Associated Press survey last year found 2,570 cases in this country between 2001 and 2005 in which educators were sanctioned or lost their teaching credentials entirely after being accused of sexual misconduct. About 90 percent of offenders were male, the AP survey found, and the number of cases rose each year during that period.

A state Education Department report from 2007 found that accusations of moral misconduct against teachers in New York rose from 70 in 2001 to 134 in 2005. Most involve accusations of sexual contact or other inappropriate relationships.

Male teachers, such as former Buffalo Seminary teacher Malcolm Watson, typically are vilified as predators who take advantage of underage female students.

But when a female teacher pursues a male student, the student rarely is viewed as a victim.

"Whereas the female student is clearly a victim, the male victim is viewed as 'scoring,' " said Convissar, the former prosecutor.

But sexual misconduct by a teacher "is a situation when a younger, impressionable youth is subjected to adult manipulation," he said. "And it's wrong, no matter what the sex is."

Some of the more attractive offenders have become minor celebrities, and they receive a lot of attention on Web sites that track teacher-student sex cases.

One of the most popular is Debra LaFave, a former model and middle school teacher from Tampa, Fla., who admitted having sex with a 14-year-old student in 2004, when she was 23.

The blond beauty became a tabloid sensation, even giving an interview to NBC's Matt Lauer. A Google Images search for photos of LaFave still brings up more than 6,000 hits.

But "that's a broader social phenomenon, where we really objectify women and focus on their appearance," according to Jennifer S. Hunt, a Buffalo State College associate professor of psychology who studies gender issues.

Locally, the accusations against Dickey, the former South Buffalo Charter School teacher, generated a flurry of interest.

Dickey, 30, initially was arrested after she and her 14-year-old pupil disappeared in June. The two turned up within 24 hours, but Dickey was charged with promoting a suicide attempt, unlawful imprisonment and other crimes.

She lost her job and was ordered to stay away from the boy, but police say she violated that order and had sex with him at least once before she was arrested again this month. Dickey now is charged with second-degree rape.

Interest in her case has been high. Hunt, the Buffalo State professor, said educators are under close scrutiny, but she added that the incidents involving attractive female teachers fit into adolescent male fantasies.

She pointed to the 1984 Van Halen hit, "Hot for Teacher," and its racy-for-its-time video as an example of that thinking.

Does this double standard carry over into the legal system?

LaFave accepted a plea deal that guaranteed no jail time. Prosecutors allowed this because the media focus on the case -- and the potential that Court TV would cover the trial -- wore on the victim and his family.

Sandra Geisel, a suburban Albany teacher who was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old student in the press box at the school's football stadium, pleaded guilty to third-degree rape of a 16-year-old, but she served only six months in jail.

Van Valkinburgh, the Town of Tonawanda resident and former Sacred Heart teacher, also pleaded guilty to a third-degree rape charge in a case also involving a 16-year-old victim.

But he was given three to nine years in prison, one of the longest local sentences for statutory rape, Clark said.

Another male offender, Philip R. Sims, a former middle school music teacher in Niagara Falls, received just a six-month jail sentence for a three-year sexual relationship that began when his female victim was 14.

But state data shows that men in general receive longer average state prison sentences than women for felony convictions.

There's a sense women make more sympathetic defendants.

"There's a definite bias there. People generally feel sorry for a woman who gets involved in a situation like this," said Charles Ewing, a professor of law and forensic psychology at UB. "I don't see any sympathy for the male teachers."

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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