Friday, 16 January 2015

Should teacher Stuart Kerner have been spared jail?

What do you think of the 44-year old teacher and his 16 year-old... well, what exactly? Victim? Prey?  Stalker? Lover?

If you haven't heard this news story you can read about it here. Basically, a 44 year old man (Stuart Kerner) was spared jail this week despite being found guilty of having sex with the girl, who was a pupil at the school at which he was vice-principal.

The girl was over the age of consent; the sexual activity was thus consensual in every sense of the word. Indeed, according to the judge, she did more than willingly submit. But Kerner was her teacher or a teacher at her school and therefore in a position of trust. And that made what he did a criminal offence.

Almost every secondary teacher of a similar age will know someone like Stuart Kerner. And men - for it is largely male teachers - will often read such cases with a sigh and whisper there-but-for-grace of God go I. It's an occupational hazard.

I can vividly recall an occasion when God's grace was nearly not so bountiful. A girl, fifteen at the time, took to hanging around outside my classroom, found out where I lived and began following me in the street. Nothing came of it. She grew tired, I suppose, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

But there were others - colleagues, friends - for whom it was different. Some of them no doubt wake in the night terrified that one day there will be knock on the door and a warrant for their arrest. There were - and as Kerner shows, still are - some awful abuses of power even if nothing technically illegal (at the time) ever happened.

But in other cases some of these men have marriages and families to show for the mutual love and trust they shared with girls they once taught. Back in the eighties, and before the law added abuse of trust to the charge sheet, teachers did sometimes fall in love with their pupils. Not often, maybe. And not openly. But they did, and such relationships didn't all end in tragedy.

Today, such men would be charged, tried and possibly jailed. Or at the very least, like Kermer, given a suspended sentence and placed on the Sex Offenders register for life together with a life ban from working with children. And in most cases this is an entirely appropriate response. But maybe not all.

There was a tremendous backlash after the sentence was passed. The judge is herself now under investigation for her summing up. It may be a mistake to say (as she did) that the girl as good as 'groomed' the teacher. And although the Attorney General yesterday rejected the call for a review of the sentence - on the rather curious grounds that the offence 'wasn't covered by the unduly lenient sentence scheme' - there are today moves afoot to change that ruling.

Let's be clear about this. A suspended sentence doesn't mean Kerner won't go to prison. Just that he won't provided he does nothing - nothing - to bring him to the attention of the police for the next eighteen months. And he's not 'got away' with anything, in losing career, respect, and possibly his family. And this attempt to shed light on the debate is emphatically not about blaming the victim or excusing criminal behaviour. But crimes are often complex collisions of human passions and demand an individual response and the consideration of unique circumstances - something that appears to be more difficult thanks to knee jerk headline grabbing reactions to what the press more often regard as lenient sentences.

I've this week finished Richard Cole's highly entertaining (not to say eyebrow-raising) autobiography, Fathomless Riches, or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit. Coles descriptions of himself reveal someone more vulnerable and at risk in his twenties and thirties than a great many sixteen year olds are. And what of Stephen Fry and his thirty-year-junior lover and fiancé.

Age, and age-gaps, aren't as obviously important as we assume. The age of consent in sixteen. For the next two years the law further protects girls (and boys) from the predatory advances of those in positions of authority over them.

But not all advances are predatory; not all young people need such protection. And a fair number of those who are older and should know better, might. Before we all jump to conclusions we need to step back and consider things clearly, calmly and with the facts of the matter - the individual matter - before us.

Which is what Judge Joanna Greenberg QC did.

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