The Megan Stammers affair is is being handled very badly by all the parties concerned. It seems to me that in the middle of the media storm, the heartfelt appeals from the family and the vilification of the teacher, the one person whose interests are not being considered is the girl herself.
Firstly, there is the heavy-handed behaviour of the police. I have a 15-year-old daughter. Believe me, if she ran away with her maths teacher (or any other adult male - or female, for that matter) ALL the police would be doing is bringing her back, as safely and as QUIETLY as possible. And that would be the end of the matter unless she herself chose to pursue action against him for something - abduction, rape, sexual assault, scrumping apples, whatever. I would not give permission for "medical checks" such as have already been conducted on Megan Stammers: I know what those involve, and until I had spoken to my daughter and heard her version of events, no way would any police doctor get her mitts on her. The police's job is simply to return her to her family and take no further action unless and until the girl herself makes a formal complaint. They have in my view overstepped the mark, though I assume that must be with the agreement of her family - and I wonder what on earth they are thinking of, allowing police medical checks to take place in a foreign country and in her family's absence.
Then there is the profligate media coverage. Publicity was necessary to enable her to be located and returned to her family, but some of the media coverage has gone way beyond what was needed to get her back. How does this level of publicity in any way help her to return to normality? This young woman has to return to school and continue her studies. She has to face her classmates and her friends. Even if she moves to another school her face, and the media's version of her story, is now all over Facebook. Has no-one thought of the consequences for her, the taunts and the bullying she is likely to receive? Yes, I'm sure she will receive counselling to help her re-engage with normal school life, but her contemporaries won't have coaching on how to re-engage with her: how on earth do you counsel the whole of Facebook? I hear the language my teenage children and their friends use about other teenagers whose sexual behaviour they consider abnormal - and abnormal for them includes unsafe, promiscuous and involving much older people. Even as an uninvolved observer, I would not like that sort of language to be applied to her. I am therefore appalled that her family appear to have encouraged this level of media interest. I understand their reasons, but they don't seem to have considered the likely effect on their daughter.
Worse still, much of the reporting and comment on Jeremy Forrest in the media, the blogosphere and on social media has in my view been downright prejudicial. We hear claims that he is "predatory", a "paedophile" who "grooms young girls". And reporters produce "evidence" in the form of social media messages from pupils at his previous school that purport to show an over-familiar relationship with them. I doubt if they show anything of the kind - and I have reason for saying that. I am a peripatetic singing teacher working on a one-to-one basis with teenagers (both girls and boys) in schools and at my home. For older students I organise lessons by text, because that is the best way of communicating with them, and some students communicate with me via social media, though I prefer them not to do this - I like my social life to be separate from theirs! Many of them routinely sign messages with "xx". Does that mean I have an "over-familiar" relationship with them? I hope it doesn't. I meticulously observe professional boundaries in my work, not least because peripatetic teachers are very vulnerable to allegations of abuse and singing teachers particularly so. But I cannot control what children write on text or social media messages! And if I am doing a concert, I may well invite my older students to attend. Does that mean that I am "grooming" them? Hardly. I've invited them to an event that I think they will enjoy and that may be relevant to their education.
All we actually know about Jeremy Forrest is that he ran away with a pupil under the age of 18, and in so doing has abused his position as a teacher. The hysterical "paedophile" epithets stem from the fact that the girl is under the age of consent in the UK, although in France a 15-year-old girl is considered able to consent to a sexual relationship. All this displays is the lack of consistency in the laws of different countries: what is "paedophilia" in the UK is a normal sexual relationship in many other countries. People in countries where girls of 11 are routinely married off to men decades older than them must be scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss is about, since the UK never shows the slightest concern for their girls. But this is actually not relevant, though Forrest's lawyer has suggested that the pair fled to France in the mistaken belief that consummating their relationship would be legal there. The fact is that no teacher anywhere in the European Union can legally embark on a sexual relationship with a pupil who is under 18.
Jeremy Forrest has been monumentally stupid. He should have resigned as soon as he realised that his relationship with Megan Stammers was going beyond normal teacher-pupil limits. Had he done so, the situation might have been very different. Equally, if the school had acted to suspend him as soon as allegations of an inappropriate relationship were made, the whole affair could have been nipped in the bud. He will pay a very high price for both his and the school's failure to deal with the situation earlier. He will never teach under-18s again, and as his face and his story are all over the press and social media he will find it it difficult to get ANY employment, such is the hysteria whipped up about paedophilia.
At the moment all Forrest stands accused of is child abduction, for which there is no placement on the sex offenders' register, though it does carry a sentence of up to seven years. But it is still possible that he could be prosecuted for sexual offences against a minor and placed on the sex offenders' register. If he is, he will have severe restrictions placed on his movements not only by the courts and the police, but by numerous civil organisations too, including the Church (which is astonishingly unforgiving towards lay people who display unacceptable behaviour towards juveniles). I know someone who was convicted of a minor sexual offence against a 13-year-old, to which he pleaded guilty and was placed on the sex offenders' register. Although he has made very considerable efforts to reform, including undertaking voluntary psychotherapy, he now lives under constant suspicion of his behaviour and his motives. It is in effect a life sentence. I do not defend his behaviour, but I do wonder if the punishment for what was only a minor offence has been unreasonably harsh. His life has been destroyed; I have no doubt that whether or not Jeremy Forrest is actually prosecuted, his life will be destroyed too.
If Forrest were a primary school teacher abducting a 9-year-old for sexual purposes, I would be the first to say that prosecution would be the right course of action, despite the consequences for the child, because of the need to protect other children. No way can a prepubescent child be considered to have "consented" to a sexual relationship. But a 15-year-old young woman is a very different matter. Although our law presumes that she cannot give "consent", in practice it is well known that many 15-year-old girls do voluntarily enter into sexual relationships, with or without their parents' knowledge, and that would seem to be the case here. If she believes that she has freely chosen to enter into that relationship, and therefore refuses to make any complaint to the police about Forrest's behaviour towards her, what right would anyone have to force her to participate in his prosecution? And although legally what he has done may be child abduction, in what way is it morally or practically so? It seems to me that in seeking to bring Forrest to justice, we may create a worse injustice.
Whether or not a 15-year-old "could" consent to a sexual relationship, as far as prosecution of the man is concerned, without her consent no trial for sexual offences can proceed. Prosecution for abduction may proceed without her consent, but I feel strongly that she must not be coerced into participating in a prosecution that would be extremely distressing for her. A prosecution for sexual offences would involve invasive medical checks and extensive interrogation, and her entire life and those of her family and her friends would be exposed in the criminal courts. I have been a juror in a trial for a serious sexual offence against a teenage girl: I was presented with the medical evidence - and, as a woman, understood how it must have been obtained - and I watched video interrogation of the girl. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life and I would not wish any teenager to go through that unless she freely chose to do so. To impose such an ordeal on her, or coerce her into participating, would in my view be as abusive as the original offence. Prosecution for child abduction would be considerably less invasive, especially if Forrest pleaded guilty, but it would still be emotionally very distressing for the girl. What would be the benefit to the girl and to society of prosecuting this man? How would it justify the very considerable cost? He has already wrecked his life, and hers. Why make matters worse?
The tragedy is that the lives of two young people (yes, he is young too) have been ruined. We would do well to remember this, and temper our desire for justice with compassion for both of them.