School For Scandal
Three weeks ago, a sixth-grade math teacher fled to Mexico with her 13-year-old student and suspected lover. The international attention and eventual extradition was an unusual twist on what has become a familiar tale: female teachers having affairs with their male charges.
Mary Kay Letourneau, in 1996, was arguably a first in this new wave of scandal. At 34, she was found to be pregnant by her 12-year-old student, whom she later married. The last two years have been filled with similar headlines. Tampa middle school teacher Debra Lafave, 23, was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old student. Colorado teacher Carrie McCandless, 29, was accused of having sexual contact with a 17-year-old student. Phoenix, Ariz., teacher Jennifer Mally, 26, was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student. The list goes on -- and on.
But similar allegations in Clay County have escaped the national spotlight. According to depositions in the divorce case of former Fleming Island High School teacher Jennifer Porter, statements by her former student, a police report, and the conclusions of an investigation by school officials, Porter was involved in an affair with one of her former students while he attended Clay County schools. Unlike the headline cases, however, Porter's situation has never been reported.
On May 10, 19-year-old former Fleming Island High School student Bradley Robinson returned to his alma mater to meet with the principal. He came voluntarily and spoke on the record; his comments were taped and loosely transcribed.
But the meeting wasn't an easy one. Robinson was there to tell Principal Sam Ward about what he said was a year-long affair with Jennifer Porter, his former English teacher.
By then, the affair was a well-known rumor around the affluent community of Fleming Island. Porter's husband had heard it. So had Robinson's parents and friends, including many students at the school. Even one Clay County School Board member had heard of the relationship. Porter continued to teach at Fleming Island High School, however, and until the May 10 meeting, Robinson had never spoken of the affair to school officials.
According to notes of the meeting taken by Ward's secretary, which Folio Weekly obtained from Jennifer Porter's personnel file, Robinson met her as a 17-year-old senior when he entered Porter's ESE (Exceptional Student Education) English class. The two became fast friends, he said, often talking on the phone. Although Robinson transferred to another school in November, the relationship deepened as weeks passed. Robinson said Porter invited him to her house on Dec. 2, 2005, to watch a movie and the two began "making out" on her couch. A few weeks later, on New Year's Eve, he says they had sex for the first time.
According to Robinson, theirs was an intense physical relationship. He said he began going to the teacher's home "every day after school" and sometimes joined her in the back of her Honda Odyssey at a Green Cove Springs park. He estimates they had sex some 200 times in the course of the relationship.
By April 2006, the teenager told Principal Ward, things had "cooled down a bit." Porter's husband had discovered the affair. (His brother, also a teacher at Fleming Island High School, told him about the rampant rumors. Porter's husband confronted her later, after he found one of his children playing with Robinson's ID.) The two still communicated, but mostly via phone calls and text messages. Close to the end of Robinson's senior year, the teenager said he was chagrined to discover that Porter was seeing another man and still having sexual relations with her husband. (Robinson had already learned that she wasn't 26 and divorced, as she'd initially told him, but 28 and married with two children.) Robinson said he "began to realize that Ms. Porter was not who he thought she was." He added he had "become very vulnerable during this time in his life due to the death of his father. Ms. Porter helped him through this difficult time."
At this point in the meeting, according to the notes, the boy began to cry. He said that he regretted the affair and that the reason he came forward was because he felt Jennifer Porter was "capable of doing this again." He wanted to make sure that didn't happen. He told Ward that if nothing was done, he'd go to the School Board.
Ward asked the young man some very specific questions about the affair, including whether it occurred "while you were a student in the Clay County School System" and whether other students knew. Robinson replied yes to both. Ward assured the teen "the matter would be dealt with."
It was -- but not the way Robinson might have hoped. An internal school investigation appeared to confirm the teen's story, and found "sufficient evidence ... that Ms. Porter has violated the [teachers'] Code of Ethics and the Principles Of Professional Conduct of the Education Profession."
But the investigation yielded no punishment. Porter was allowed to quietly resign, citing "personal reasons," and soon found another job teaching at a Jacksonville school. Parents weren't told, and even School Board members, who were asked to vote on Porter's departure, did so without knowing why she was leaving. It was almost as if nothing ever happened.
With its sprawling campus and modern architecture, Fleming Island High School looks more like a small college than a public high school. Clay County Superintendent David Owens approved pouring millions of extra dollars into the design of the school, located in the most affluent area of Clay County. He then appointed his close friend, Sam Ward, as principal, earning a nearly $100,000 yearly salary.
Despite its sleek good looks and privileged student body, however, the school has had its share of problems. Drug use, vandalism and behavioral issues are considered rampant even by students, some of whom have taken to wearing bright orange shirts that read "Fleming Island Prison." (Principal Ward has banned the shirts from campus.) Others -- including teachers -- frequently refer to the school as Fleming Island Pharmacy, a nod to students' affinity for illegal substances.
The school was in the news plenty in 2004 when, as Folio Weekly first reported, Principal Ward refused to allow senior Kelli Davis to appear in the yearbook because she chose to wear a tuxedo instead of a drape in the photograph. (Davis, a lesbian, filed suit, ultimately forcing the school to adopt a non-discrimination policy.)
The Jennifer Porter matter, though never reported, has also been a public relations problem for the school. Among residents of Fleming Island, including parents of FIHS students, word of the affair was common currency. (Folio Weekly first learned of the allegations from parents of several students.)
Ward and Owens work hard, and not always successfully, to conceal such crises from parents and the press. In the case of Jennifer Porter, however, their approach may not be unusual. According to a recent three-part investigative series on sexual misconduct by teachers, the Associated Press found that boys who have affairs with female teachers are typically viewed as "lucky" and unharmed by the experience. A survey of five years of state disciplinary records found that 2,570 educators were punished for sexual misconduct; almost nine out of 10 offenders were male. But when boys were victims, the relationships were rarely described as rape or sexual abuse, and the punishments typically light. A 2004 University at Buffalo study found that a female teacher having sex with a male student was most often seen as a "normal part of growing up."
In reality, says Richard Gartner, a New York psychologist and author of a book on the sexual abuse of boys, damage often surfaces later in the form of addictive and compulsive behaviors, from gambling to engaging in risky sex to substance abuse.
"In our society, we're socialized to think that men aren't victims," Gartner told the AP. "To say that you are a victim and particularly a sexual victim, for many boys and men, is to say that you're not entirely a man."
The fact that Fleming Island High School chose to let Jennifer Porter leave quietly, then, may not have been that unusual. Officials there simply seem eager to put the matter behind them, even if it means pretending what happened wasn't all that bad.
Outwardly, Jennifer Porter seemed to have it all. Born in April 1977, she had a comfortable childhood growing up in Tampa, where her mother currently serves as an assistant school superintendent. She received a Bachelor of Arts in advertising and public relations from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, then worked in public relations, planning celebrity and sports events. She returned to college and received a masters in special education from the University of South Florida, Tampa, and spent several months teaching special-needs kids in the Naples area.
Her future husband graduated from Middleburg High School, attended Jacksonville University on a baseball scholarship, and was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. Sidelined by an arm injury, he traded his baseball glove for a high-paying job with a flourishing Jacksonville financial firm, and soon made partner.
The two married in 2001. By 2005, they were the envy of their neighbors in their affluent Eagle Harbor neighborhood. He was tall, handsome and athletic, and friends of the couple said he "worshipped" his wife. Porter was a 28-year-old knockout, with long legs, long blonde hair and a substantial bustline. She looked and dressed more like a high-school student than some of the girls she taught.
But the fall of 2005 was the start of a very troubled time for the couple. Bradley Robinson was a good-looking, 17-year-old senior, with light-brown hair and blue eyes. He and Porter became friends and, as Robinson struggled to deal with news of his father's terminal cancer, he says, Porter began "counseling" him in person and by phone. By mid-September, students and teachers interviewed for this story say young Robinson had Porter's photograph on his cell phone and rumors were rampant that they were "a couple" in every sense of the word.
Porter denies this. She has insisted in deposition that the affair didn't begin until after Robinson left school in November (apparently to attend Bannerman Learning Center, an alternative school for kids with emotional or behavioral problems, after he was found skipping school in a car that had marijuana seeds on the floor). This would also mean that nothing happened until after Oct. 2, which was Robinson's 18th birthday.
Robinson's story roughly conforms to Porter's. He told Principal Ward that the affair wasn't consummated until late December 2005, at which point he was no longer attending FIHS. (He and his twin brother graduated from Clay High School in Green Cove Springs.) But even though he was no longer in her class, Robinson continued to have a school-based relationship with Ms. Porter.
According to depositions in Porter's ongoing divorce case, in November 2005, Porter and a male teacher took four students on a "field trip" to Tallahassee to see a Florida State/ Maryland football game. Three of the kids were students at FIHS. Bradley Robinson was the fourth. On another occasion, Robinson says, Porter took him and other FIHS students on a field trip to Islands of Adventure in Orlando. (According to Robinson's statement to Ward, he knew "he was not supposed to go" on the school field trip, but did it anyway. He told Ward, "They stayed in a hotel together. They made out that night, but did not have sex that night.")
Superintendent Owens suspended Porter with pay the same day Principal Ward met with Robinson. The School Board voted in favor of the suspension, but Porter's name was withheld at the meeting and the board was given no clue about the circumstances of her departure. The only reason Superintendent Owens gave for the suspension was "Specifically, non-compliance with the regulations and policies of the School Board, State Board of Education or the law of Florida, and action, which brings the school system into disrepute." (School Board Member Lisa Graham said she'd heard about the alleged affair through the "grapevine" and confirmed it with school officials. Board members Carol Studdard and Wayne Bolla said they had no information about the particulars when they voted in favor of the suspension.)
In the weeks that followed, Toni McCabe, the Clay County School District's assistant superintendent for human resources, conducted an internal investigation. McCabe met twice with Porter, her attorney, and her parents, among others. McCabe noted that Porter insisted the relationship didn’t start until after Robinson graduated from high school in 2006, but McCabe said she'd found "supporting testimony ... to the contrary."
Robinson, of course, had told Ward that the affair began before he graduated. He retracted this version of events just last month, in an Oct. 24, 2007 affidavit that he sent to Jennifer Porter's attorney. Though the affidavit carries no legal weight (it was not sworn under penalty of perjury, as a deposition is, and makes no claim that it is a true version of events), it complicates Robinson's story. In the recent affidavit, he says what he told Principal Ward was a "lie," made up to hurt Jennifer Porter. He said the affair didn't begin until "a week and a half" after he graduated, on or about May 2006.
The timing of the affair is important, both from a professional standpoint (Porter's future employment could be at stake) and a personal one (a judge in Porter's divorce and custody case may look less favorably on a student/teacher affair). But Porter's claim, and Robinson's recent statement suggesting the affair started post-graduation, are both contradicted by a 2006 police report -- one that highlights just how ugly things eventually became.
Sometime after 1 a.m. on June 15, 2006, police responded to a disturbance call at Jennifer Porter's Fleming Island home. Officer C.B. Ruby arrived to find two young men grappling on the ground, punching one another. One was Bradley Robinson. The other was a 24-year-old named Tommy, whom Porter had started dating. (She and her husband were in counseling at the time. He'd moved out in May.)
According to later depositions, Porter and Tommy were in the house together; so were Porter's two children. (The story varies depending on which of Porter's statements you believe. Either Porter and Tommy were upstairs together, or Porter was downstairs with her daughter eating Jell-O.) Bradley Robinson, apparently drunk, arrived and began knocking, wailing Porter's name. He wanted to talk to her. "I told him it was time for him to go," Porter later recalled in deposition. "He kept knocking." Porter called Robinson's twin brother. "You need to come pick up your brother, please."
According to Tommy's deposition (taken in Porter's divorce case), Robinson came around the back of the house and began pounding on the door. "[He] told me he was going to fucking kill me, that he's been dating Jenny Porter for the past year and having sexual relations with her as well."
Robinson's deposition mirrored Tommy's. "I say, 'Who the F are you?' -- cursing screaming, 'Who the F are you?' -- telling him I am going to kill him, telling him some really vulgar things. 'I have been having sex with Jenny for a year, what are you doing here?'"
Tommy said he told Porter several times to "call the cops." She didn't. Instead, she tried to dial information for the Sheriff's Office. "I don't know why I just didn't call 911," she later said.
Neighbors did call the Clay County Sheriff's Office. In the meantime, Robinson knocked out the sliding glass door with a bottle and entered the house. Robinson hit Tommy several times in the neck and head, and the two rolled out onto the grass. Robinson continued to punch him until police arrived.
Bradley Robinson was arrested. On the incident report, Deputy Ruby wrote that Robinson told him he had been in "an intimate relationship" with Porter and went to her home to try to "work things out." The teacher, however, told police the relationship had been over for "months." That timetable, if accurate, would appear to confirm Robinson's original story. (This version was also recently confirmed by Porter's attorney during a Nov. 9 appearance before Circuit Court Judge Daniel Wilensky. When the judge asked her when the affair was over, Porter's attorney stipulated that it ended in March or April of 2006.)
After the incident, Porter told her husband and others that she'd taken out a restraining order against her former student. It's not clear how much of a distance she kept, however. A copy of a check in the divorce file shows that, as late as Sept. 7, 2006, she had written a $500 check to bail Robinson out of jail.
Around that time, the Porters each retained counsel, who began to dissect their lives and finances. Porter continued to teach at Fleming Island High School.
Sometime between Porter's May 10 suspension and her July 11 resignation, Toni McCabe issued a report on her investigation. She wrote that she "believe[s] that sufficient evidence exists that Ms. Porter has violated the Code of Ethics and the Principles of Professional Conduct of the Education Profession in Florida." McCabe recommended that the Superintendent ask the School Board to terminate Porter.
Instead, Owens allowed Porter to resign. Her July 11, 2007, resignation letter was two sentences long. She said she was leaving for "personal reasons."
The state's powers in such a case extend only to action against a teacher's license. Because Bradley Robinson was over 18 when he reported the liaison, and because the sexual relationship allegedly took place after he turned 18, there was no crime. Still, if the affair occurred during the school year while Robinson was a student, that could violate the state's educational Code of Ethics. According to McCabe's report, it did. Based on McCabe's findings, Superintendent Owens is required to report Porter to the state education Ethics Board of Professional Regulation, a board on which Principal Ward sits. But at a court hearing on Nov. 12, Porter told the court that Clay County School officials allowed her to resign and advised her to seek employment in Duval County.
She immediately found employment at Englewood High School in Jacksonville. When Mr. Porter's brother discovered she was teaching at another high school, he sent an email to the school informing them about the reason Jennifer Porter left FIHS. In a deposition, Principal Alvin Brennan said he didn't grill Porter about what had occurred at FIHS. He merely asked whether she could fulfill her duties as a teacher at Englewood. She affirmed she could.
It's not clear whether Porter was terminated or resigned from Englewood. The State Board of Professional Practices won't confirm or deny if there is an investigation pending against Porter's teaching license. She is currently out of a job.
In the meantime, Porter's divorce has become increasingly nasty. Her husband, speaking in a deposition, expressed his profound shock at discovering the affair. "I was just blown away," he admitted. "How could someone have an affair with a high school kid?"
As for Bradley Robinson, the future isn't bright. He has been arrested four times since his June 2006 arrest at Porter's house, and he has violated the terms of his probation in a variety of ways, according to police records. There are two outstanding warrants for his arrest, but police have been unable to serve them. After Robinson met with Principal Ward, he left the area. If anyone knows where he is now, they aren't saying.