Can a teacher accused of assaulting one of her pupils ever really clear her name?
Saturday 13 November 1999
The two court cases will be familiar to anyone who hasn't spent most of the past seven days locked in purdah. One concerns 55-year-old Paul Gadd, better known as the singer Gary Glitter, who was accused of committing sexual offences against a besotted female fan when she was just 14-years- old. Gadd's defence barrister claimed that his client's accuser made up the story for a Sunday newspaper in return for pounds 25,000. The jury went out on Thursday and yesterday declared the star not guilty of the charges of sexual assault (though he was jailed for "making indecent photographs" of children). The case has stirred familiar fears and smutty feelings about the appetites of full-grown men for girlish flesh. Those of us who went through our own adolescences lapping up Glitter's camp rock `n' roll theatrics in the early Seventies will never be able to feel quite the same way again about "the man who put the bang in gang".
But the week's other under-age sex case has more confusing implications, at least in terms of what society tends to define as appropriate or normal sexual conduct. For a start, the alleged sexual predator was a woman school teacher and her alleged victim a 15-year-old boy pupil to whom she taught drama at a private boarding school. Ms Williams was acquitted on Wednesday, yet there remains a strong sense in which she is the one who has been punished, despite her innocence. The case has also been revealing in other ways, not least in spotlighting a string of uncomfortable issues about the ways in which school teachers and teenage students relate and, in particular, about all-too-common attitudes among adolescent boys towards women and towards sex.
During the trial we learnt that Williams started working at the school in September 1998. It was her first job in teaching, and she quickly found herself in professional difficulties. The 10-year-olds in her tutor group did not give her a problem, but she found her eight GCSE pupils very hard to handle. She claimed they were "disruptive and generally obstructive", and that their insolence took on an aggressive, sexual quality. Her inability to get them to behave left her "increasingly stressed and exhausted", she said, but when she approached senior colleagues for assistance her concerns were dismissed as the ordinary panics of a newly qualified teacher. Depressed, she took to drink and to valium, and in court acknowledged being under the influence of alcohol on the night of one of the two assaults she was falsely accused of committing against one of her drama pupils. She had been sent to accompany the GCSE students on a trip to the North Wales coast, and after having a few drinks with a colleague in a pub, took seven of the boys with her for a walk along the beach. A little worse for drink she decided to take a dip in the freezing water to clear her head, stripped naked and plunged in. Some of the boys followed her, and later drank cider with her and her (male) colleague.
The boy's subsequent allegation was that later that night Williams had gone up to his room, invited him down to her own room and there had sexual intercourse with him. But in her defence, Williams's fellow teacher gave evidence that she had been far too intoxicated for any such behaviour. On the contrary, he said that he'd had to help her up some stairs and into a bath before making her some coffee and helping her into her bed at about 2.30 in the morning. This supported Williams's story that with the help of valium, she had then fallen into a deep sleep. The colleague was sure she couldn't have climbed up to the boy's room after that, and he would certainly have heard her if she had.
As for the boy, his version of events was somewhat undermined by his earlier admission under cross-examination that he had not, as previously claimed, also had intercourse with Williams at a later date. This resulted in the other charge of indecent assault being dropped on the direction of the judge. On Thursday, Williams was pictured all over the newspapers holding a bunch of flowers and professing her relief at being found not guilty. But has she left the court without a blemish on her character? Not exactly.
In some respects this is hardly surprising. By her own admission some of Williams's own behaviour had been foolish. Given the climate of innuendo of which she had already complained, taking a skinny dip in the presence of the boys was a particularly serious misjudgement. (She realised this before the police interviewed her about that night and initially lied that she had actually been wearing a black "body" at the time.) Nor was it very smart to have sent the boy she was alleged to have had sex with a Christmas card signed "Miss Magical Seductive Ren" - though she claimed to have sent almost every boy in the school a card containing some expression of affection.
And yet the fact remains that Williams has been found to be the victim of terrible untruths by the boy and some of his peers, truths which it was argued in court amounted to a
conspiracy to have her sacked. One does not to have to wholly concur with Tory MP Peter Luff's remarks about the case to sympathise with his point that while Williams "has had her name dragged through the mud," the boys have remained anonymous thanks to their ages. And Nigel de Gruchy, head of the teacher's union the NASUWT, addressed the wider implications by highlighting what he called the "forgotten army" of teachers - male and female - who've had to leave the profession, despite disproving sexual allegations by malicious or emotionally disordered pupils.
De Gruchy has called for greater safeguards for teachers, and there are plenty who would echo him. Yet the details of the Williams case beg questions that demand much bolder answers. Only an idiot pretends that sexual feelings can be banished from the classroom.
Children's earliest sexual fantasies - usually utterly harmless and naive - are often about teachers. It's hardly a secret that these feelings can develop into crushes. So when children enter their late teens, may it not be almost logical for them to feel attracted to a person they respect and trust and who may not be many years older than they are? And does any adult person, teacher or otherwise, honestly believe that children of late school age cannot communicate a sexual allure? The pop star Sting, a former teacher, did not sing his hit song Don't Stand So Close To Me without a reason.
The problem is a real one and its consequences can be ruinous. But it cannot be solved by pretending it does not exist, or simply by insisting that it shouldn't and leaving it at that. Preventing the disaster that has befallen Renate Williams and her former charges alike requires establishing clear rules about sexualised conduct that are fully understood and respected by all concerned in the school environment. And doing that does not mean simply talking about sex within a school environment. It means talking about sexism as well. It has become fashionable, not least among governing politicians, to dismiss such thoughts as "political correctness". Yet plenty of research now shows us that boys in secondary schools are often ferociously sexist as a way of demonstrating their masculinity.
This is marked even in liberal, mixed state comprehensives. It seems to have been absolutely rampant in the private boys' boarding school at which Renate Williams got into such a mess.
How ironic, then, that sexism has loomed large throughout the Williams trial and its aftermath. Some newspapers have certainly been guilty of heaping unbalanced approbation on Renate Williams in their coverage of the proceedings. They made the most of her reputation for being "weird, wild and wacky" (as one tabloid headline put it), milked the fact that her father is a retired clergyman (if you can't have a dirty vicar, what better than a vicar's dirty daughter?), and gave her a harder time after her acquittal than they gave the wretched boys who have effectively ruined her career as a teacher.
The Mirror excelled itself in this regard. One of its sub-headlines read: "Court clears the attractive 32-year-old teacher who got drunk and swam naked with her 15-year-old boy pupils, then wondered why they made up sex fantasies about her." Why not save valuable space and simply say: "It Served Her Right?"
Meanwhile, the father of the boy Williams was cleared of assaulting, a Worcestershire GP, has made it known to the media that he still believes his son's story and hopes that Ms Williams will never get another job in teaching because "she had shown her unsuitability to be responsible for the care of young people". That may be so, but while most parents might feel inclined to speak up for their child in circumstances such as these, is it really good enough for others to tick off Williams in the same breath as observing of her tormentors that "boys will be boys"?
Dave Hill is the author of `The Future of Men', published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson
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