KENT, Wash. — She was a popular teacher, known for working past midnight on school projects and being a compassionate ally to her students. He was one of the special ones: a sixth-grader with whom she had recognized a kindred spirit when he entered her class, talented and intense.
The relationship that developed between the 13-year-old boy and his teacher, a 35-year-old mother of four who gave birth to the boy's baby in June, unfolded in a Washington courtroom Friday, where Superior Court Judge Linda Lau sentenced Mary Kay LeTourneau to six months in jail and at least three years of treatment for sex offenders.
LeTourneau, who grew up in Orange County and is the daughter of former Republican Rep. John Schmitz, pleaded guilty in August to two counts of second-degree child rape, but it was on Friday that prosecutors, psychological evaluators and defense lawyers provided the most detailed account of the yearlong affair--a liaison that cost LeTourneau her job, her husband, her children and, finally, her freedom.
Prosecutors had demanded a long prison term for the schoolteacher, pointing out that LeTourneau still holds strong feelings of romantic attachment to the boy, who also claims to love her.
But a tearful LeTourneau, standing thin and wan before the judge in a black pleated skirt, said she had realized her mistake. "I did something I had no right to do, morally or legally," she said, her soft voice breaking. "Help me."
The case has opened a national debate on female sex offenders and the curious diversity in reaction to what the attractive blond schoolteacher did: Was she, as prosecutors allege, a predator without conscience? Or, as dozens of male respondents to newspapers and talk radio programs suggest, the answer to every schoolboy's dream?
About one-fifth of all boys who are victims of sexual abuse are molested by women. Yet, much of the debate over LeTourneau has centered on whether her crime was as serious as that of an older man preying on a young girl. To suggest otherwise, say opponents of such an idea, is to impose a dangerous double standard.
"She abused the trust placed in her as a schoolteacher, as a mother, as a wife and as an adult," argued Lisa Johnson, senior deputy prosecutor. "She exploited him for her own needs, her own selfishness and her own inadequacies. . . . She is an adult who sexually abused a sixth-grade boy."
The boy himself, who with his mother is raising LeTourneau's infant, professes still to be in love with his former teacher. His mother said she has forgiven LeTourneau for her "mistake" and asked the court to be lenient.
"I don't feel that this is a crime. My son does not feel victimized," she said. "Look deep into your hearts. Society wants Mary cast away and put into jail. Society does not wake up at 2 o'clock in the morning when the baby cries. Society does not have to feel the guilt of a 14-year-old boy if he sends her to jail."
LeTourneau had been one of the most-respected teachers at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien, earning high marks for her long hours, creative curriculum and close relationships with her young charges.
"She was one of these kind of nontraditional teachers who was always willing to try a new technique, maybe throw out the tried-and-true and try a new lesson plan," school district spokesman Nick Latham said in an interview. "Some kids saw her in some cases like a peer. She could, in some cases, get right down to the level of the kids."
Students, he said, would often come back to see her after they had gone on to middle school.
The boy in question was one of them. He had first entered LeTourneau's class as a second-grader, and she quickly recognized his artistic ability and a spirit that she said made her feel bonded to him.
The relationship grew over the years, and the year after the boy graduated from her sixth-grade class, he continued to drop by the elementary school to see LeTourneau.
The teacher, meanwhile, was having problems with her husband, who, her lawyers said, was seeing other women and verbally abusing her. A turning point of sorts came in October 1995, when LeTourneau learned her father was dying of cancer.
"From Mary's point of view, it felt like she died. She was devastated. She was paralyzed. She felt like she lost the man of her life," psychiatrist Julia Moore testified Friday. Moore diagnosed LeTourneau's condition as bipolar disorder, a chemical condition of the brain that subjects its sufferers to wild mood swings and erratic behavior.
"When she turned to her husband to ask him to help her," Moore testified, "he responded to her, 'What do you want me to do about it?' in a very hostile way. That, to Mary, meant the end of her marriage."