Monday, 1 October 2012

The Stammers affair: justice or compassion?

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.


18 comments:

  1. Frances,

    Count me in. I could have written it. (well, actually I couldn't have, but you know what I mean).

    Your view is too subtle for the current moment.

    I had the problem that I used to smother my young children with kisses and cuddles. I live in Spain and not much problem here.

    However friends in the UK said not to in public. I couldn't believe it.

    UK PC hysterical reactions with labels whether they fit or not. No different from politics or economics or climate change...

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  2. Thank you for a very insightful and well-reasoned article. I've been following this story as it unfolded, and found myself wondering all along quite why it rated so much police and media attention. Teenage girls run away from home on a fairly regular basis, and teachers running off with their pupils isn't exactly something new. This one's more than the usual 15-minutes of fame stuff: she's now a household name and that (and, as you say, the reputation that comes with it) will I imagine follow her for some years to come even if she changes schools. When I was at school, none of it would've happened: she could have just left school at 15, got a job and provided they'd been reasonably discreet about any underage sex, no-one much need have been any the wiser. Her mother's got a lot to answer for, not least why she denied having known anything about it, when the indications are that she'd already been told. Or don't the police bother informing parents any more when they interview minors?

    Unfortunately, the frenzy whipped up in the media is going to make it difficult avoid a prosecution for Jeremy Forrest for something. In this case the normal blanket on identifying minors goes out of the window because her name, and the school's, are already in the public domain. How he's going to get a fair trial seems to me to be rather a moot point since the gutter press have already done a pretty good job of acting as both prosecutor, judge and jury.

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  3. Interesting perspective. Reminds me of the wonderful Brass Eye episode http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=9031532194656768989 "paedogeddon". I'm a little more forgiving of the family, they may have been told that playing along with all the media speculation would be useful publicity - in fact this may have been the case and why they were spotted so quickly.

    The main issue here appears to be the abuse of trust. I think it's entirely correct that teachers are held to a high standard in this regard.



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  4. Very interesting - and important. I'm still not sure exactly where I stand on how to treat Forrest, but I do think that far too little attention has been paid to his role as teacher, which to me is more important than his age. It's a position of trust, and a position that needs to be taken very seriously. Your final point is one that's also very often missed - even at 30 he is young.

    Personally I'm disturbed by the media portrayal of events in both directions: those who seem to be voyeuristic, to be suggesting that Megan's a seductress, or that he's somehow a man to be envied, and those who are being sensationalist in the paedophile direction. I'd rather everything was much quieter, much less emotional, and much less intrusive.

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  5. Well said! One of the saddest things about the whole situation is that Forrest seems to have been wholly unsuited to the pressures and demands of secondary teaching.

    While I find something disturbing in the respective sets of parents engaged in rival "my child is more vulnerable than yours" press conferences - to say nothing of Megan's long-lost birth father coming out of the woodwork for his fifteen minutes of fame - it has to be said that the details that have emerged suggest that he was not fully reconciled to his adult status.

    That's hardly uncommon these days, but it's a fatal flaw if your profession requires you to keep a marked distance at all times between you and the teenagers you work with.

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  6. I wonder whether Mr Forrest will be made to pay for the failures of the State to protect the 14 year old girls in Rochdale who were raped by an organised gang and whose cries for help were ignored by the police and Social Services.

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    1. I don't know about that, but I do wonder whether he will be scapegoated to hide the failings of the school in this case.

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  7. Very well said, I'm glad someone has finally explained the same thought processes I myself have been having. However, although I do believe running away to France without the knowledge of the parents was both a stupid and immature idea, Megan did consent to going, as well as appearing to having consented to any sexual activity that may or may not have occurred. Although under the law, this may be 'abduction', for what reasons do you not apply the same argument that she consented as you do to the sexual consent?

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    1. No, I don't think the same argument does apply. The offence of child abduction is "to remove a child from the lawful control of any person having lawful control of the child". Therefore the offence is against the parents, not the child, and it is their decision whether or not to prosecute.

      http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1984/37/section/2

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  8. Good post Frances - Forrest is going to have to be punished in the courts on top of flushing his career, employment prospects, and marriage away. That he has abused his position as a teacher probably leaves no other option, as no doubt there will be vocal groups out there that demand justice be seen to be done, regardless of whether anything is achieved by it.

    Despite the pretty dire situation that he is in though, there is perhaps a way he can redeem himself - if he is no longer her teacher and when she turns 16 shortly, there are no (legal) barriers to the relationship. Imagine if that relationship actually works out and a few years down the line are still together or perhaps even married - would what he did actually be a big deal any more? I think not, but I also think that this situation is unlikely for a number of reasons.

    On a final note, in all of this a lot of people have forgotten that Forrest's wife is the unwitting victim here. Her husband ran off with a 15 year old, she's had her wedding pictures splashed all over the papers and today it was reported that Megan used her passport to cross into France. It must be absolutely humiliating - poor woman.

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    1. I don't think there is any doubt that Forrest will feel the full force of the law. Exactly what charges he will face have not been decided yet - he's only been charged with abduction so far. I'm drawing attention to the fact that she will suffer too, especially if he is tried for sexual offences. I fear the whole experience could end up being very traumatic for her.

      I do feel for Forrest's wife, and I admire her dignity. She is the only adult involved in this mess who has not played the media for sympathy.

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  9. Forrest isn't (I suppose) a paedophile in the clinical sense, but he is responsible for his actions, which seem to include child abduction. He's not Jack Johnson, nor even Chuck Berry.

    If Megan Stammers has undergone the sort of medical examination you imply, I hope it was with her informed consent. If it wasn't, the authorities responsible owe her a grovelling apology.

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    1. I wouldn't regard him as a paedophile in the way that we normally think of them. He's maybe just emotionally immature. But the real issue is breach of trust because of his position as a teacher, not child abuse as such.

      It was reported that Megan was taken to hospital for medical checks as soon as she was found. I'm afraid I think it is very likely that she was indeed subjected to the sort of medical examination you and I are thinking of, because they would be looking for evidence of a sexual offence. Although the age of consent in France is 15, European law prohibits teachers from sexual relationships with pupils under 18. However, she may have refused the examination.

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  10. Well there is a lot to go at here.

    I will not bore you with my pet theory that the nature of the law has changed for the worse over the past 30 years, becoming a sort of secular legalism ideology, using the law to shape human behavior.

    My wife is a midwife or was a midwife. When we came back to the UK she got a job as a community midwife in one of the poorest and ethnically diverse areas of Sheffield.

    She lasted 18 months before stress got to her and she had to jack it in. She was constantly on the phone and reporting things that social services needed to take care off, and to be frank they were having a cuppa and discussing the Guardian in the more leafy parts of the city.

    The link between this story and yours is actually the same. The social science depts of our universities have become hotbeds of political, mainly left wing ideology. They are producing too much so called science of too little quality.

    We have produced a generation of Professionals, and I use the term loosely that are taught to see a narrative, and the narrative gives the life to tick box response of both the social services and indeed strangely enough bank regulation. It masks the view of seeing the big picture of what is going on. Narratives in my opinion in life are often weak, luck plays too much a role

    Of course there are plenty of superb social workers, family law lawyers ect, but they are in the minority and so wont speak up.

    Thus you have 30 year old teacher who are now nailed on Peados, 15 year old young women, who are now abducted toddlers. Young girls not taken seriously when being held in semi or complete slavery, the list is endless.

    For all their faults at one time a day the church played a role in family life, now its monopolised by the state and its prescribed thinking. And as with all monopolies both private, public and state. We are the losers.

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  11. According to press reports of his appearance in Court this morning, a Judge in Bordeaux has ruled that because Jeremy Forrest has agreed to the extradition he cannot be tried in the UK for offences other than child abduction, under the terms of the European Arrest Warrant that was issued.

    His lawyer is quoted as saying "we look forward to the full story emerging" [of his relationship with Megan].

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  12. Hi Frances

    You're right to be concerned about the welfare of a child - the points you raise about Megan Stammer's exposure in the media (which as you point out may have contributed to her being found fairly early) and undergoing an invasive procedure to gather evidence are important ones. However I can't agree with the rest of your post.

    However much I may worry about, and want to react against, the hysterical media and public reaction to cases like these, we must not let this overshadow what has happened - an adult has taken a child away from her home to a foreign country. Megan may be 15 but she is still a child. We appear to have a tendency that because a girl looks like an adult, she *is* an adult, should be treated as an adult and is therefore not entitled to the protection we as a society give to children. This is wrong. It helps to perpetuate the narrative that it is OK for older men and women to engage in inappropriate relationships with young people.

    We don't yet know the extent of their relationship and it is fairly dangerous to speculate, like you say it could prejudice the case. However, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 is clear about the law in the UK on the age of consent and about the age of consent in relation to people in positions of trust, which Jeremy Forrest was as Megan's teacher. I think this law and the rest of UK law should be applied equally to all. It is hard reconcile the requirement to prosecute and give the message that it is not at all OK for adults to have inappropriate relationships with children with the trauma children will end up facing by the authorities gathering evidence to support a trial and the child giving evidence at a trial. But, if adults are not properly prosecuted, it gives the message that it's OK, you'll be able to get away with it, which puts more children in danger.

    You say that Jeremy Forrest is young too. He is *relatively* young but not young in the same way that a 15 year old child is. He is an adult and responsible for his own actions. It's odd to imply that they are young together, to equalise their ages, because this, to me, seeks to take responsibility away from him as an adult and put it onto to Megan as a child. And as a teacher he will have been told many times about limits of teachers' relationships with their pupils, about boundaries and what is inappropriate. I'm afraid there are no excuses.

    I am very worried how the media and society treats cases involving children and sex, missing children, and children committing crimes. I'm particularly worried about how some children are treated differently - more harshly or with compassion, more column inches or more tweets - because of their gender, their class (or that of their parents) and the colour of their skin.

    I think this case, and the Rochdale case, means we need to look hard at how we protect older children because we really don't do it very well.

    Stephanie

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    1. Stephanie,

      The Sexual Offences Act 2003 does not apply in this case. No-one is suggesting that they had a sexual relationship in the UK. They may have done in France, but the age of consent there is 15 and UK law does not apply.

      The laws that do apply in this case are the UK law against child abduction, which as I pointed out in an earlier comment is an offence against the parents, not the child, and European law prohibiting teachers from entering into sexual relationships with pupils under 18. The first of these is the grounds for Forrest's extradition and I expect that he will stand trial for this in due course. Regarding the second, it would be impossible to prove to the standard required for criminal conviction unless the girl herself agreed to testify against him and provide medical evidence. She can't be forced to do so without introducing another form of abuse.

      I have some sympathy for your point of view, but my principal concern is for the physical and emotional wellbeing of the girl. Justice would not be served by forcing her to go through further trauma.

      The Rochdale case is entirely different. It is a major institutional failure. Both the local authority and the police have failed in their duty of care to vulnerable children, and they should be hung out to dry. In the Stammers case, the school may also have failed to act over earlier allegations of a relationship: if so, then the senior management should also be hung out to dry. That in my view would provide far better protection for children in the future than pursuing a prosecution for sexual offences that is unlikely to stick and will only cause further distress to the child.

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  13. This is just about the most sensible comment I have seen on the Stammers/Forrest affair. Correction - it is the only sensible comment.

    Both will take a long time to recover, if ever, and had they been a little more patient and waited until she was 16 it should not have been an issue. Maybe that required a maturity that neither of them possessed.

    I sincerely hope that any medical examination of a 15 year old girl was carried out with the express written permission of her parents as they were not there otherwise it would constitute assault. You cannot accuse Forrest of abduction or worse of a minor who was not 'competent' to take her own decisions then examine her on the basis of her agreement, even if it was legal in France, as the extradition and consequent action was raised in the UK. From a French viewpoint they may have been silly but they had done nothing wrong and only the extradition warrant (and the media frenzy that unfairly accused the French of doing nothing) obliged the authorities to act.

    As you say, the only person to come out with any dignity, and anonymity, is Forrest's wife. Neither families - particularly the Stammers family - nor the authorities nor the press come out with any credit at all. Of all the parties, she has had her life damaged the most.

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