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'It Looks Very Innocent At First': What Are The Signs Of A Teacher Grooming A Student?

In the show "A Teacher," Claire Wilson, played by Kate Mara, manipulates her student Eric Walker, played by Nick Robinson into sex. While it's fictional, it mirrors real-life grooming tactics.

A Teacher Grooming Fx

The average American has now become accustomed to — and likely weary — of headlines about teacher-student sex abuse scandals. It’s a tale that has become all too familiar: A female teacher, often described as pretty, uses her role as a teacher to manipulate one of her male students into sex. 

“A Teacher,” a new 10-episode FX limited series which will premiere on Hulu on Nov. 10, depicts a fictionalized story of a pretty teacher preying on a high school senior. While the series is fictional, many elements mirror the disturbing details from real cases of teacher-student abuse.

(Warning: Spoilers below)

In "A Teacher," Claire Wilson (played by Kate Mara) ignores her own loving husband in favor of high school senior Eric Walker (Nick Robinson), her student. She fantasizes about him and finds ways to get close to him before manipulating him into sexual abuse. Over the course of the 10 episodes, the show depicts this disturbing process, commonly known as grooming.

What are the signs?

"'A Teacher' is a fictional story but its portrayal of abuse and trauma are real for many young people," Mara says in a PSA for the show. Each episode ends on a slate which directs viewers to an FX page which has listed some of the warning signs of grooming:

1. Victim selection: Abusers often observe possible victims and select them based on ease of access to them or their perceived vulnerability.

Dr. Alice Berkowitz, a forensic psychologist who has experience working with sexual abuse victims and sex offenders alike, told Oxygen.com that these types of predators will sometimes target the more withdrawn and shy boys. They will then shower them with attention and make them “feel special.” This could include intimate looks, calling on them in class more, and giving them their own projects. The boy may start to hang around toward the end of class. 

In “A Teacher,” Wilson compliments Walker on his work and shows clear favoritism to him over his peers.

“It looks very innocent at first,” Berkowitz said.

2. Gaining access and isolating the victim: Abusers will attempt to physically or emotionally separate a victim from those protecting them and often seek out positions in which they have contact with minors.

Wilson begins tutoring Walker in "A Teacher" and doesn't pull away when he touches her. She finds excuses to be close to him, and even takes him on a trip to visit a college he hopes to attend.

Berkowitz said that a teacher may tell the student how mature he is, and will start to spend more and more time with him.

A boy in Walker’s shoes may end up gushing about their teacher a lot. 

3. Trust development and keeping secrets: Abusers attempt to gain trust of a potential victim through gifts, attention, sharing “secrets,” and other means to make them feel they have a caring relationship and to train them to keep the relationship secret.

In “A Teacher,” Walker gets caught underage drinking and Wilson helps him out by utilizing her cop brother to get him out of trouble. She tells him to keep the favor she did him a secret and insists he’s not like other kids his age; he’s special.

4. Desensitization to touch and discussion of sexual topics: Abusers will often start to touch a victim in ways that appear harmless, such as hugging, wrestling, and tickling, and later escalate to increasingly more sexual contact, such as massages or showering together. Abusers may also show the victim pornography or discuss sexual topics with them, to introduce the idea of sexual contact.

“The feeling of being special is how it starts,” Berkowitz told Oxygen.com. “Over time, the teacher will actually start to touch him. She'll go over and rub his back for a minute or just talk by him and touch him and tell him how nice he looks.”

5. Attempt by abusers to make their behavior seem natural, to avoid raising suspicions. For teens, who may be closer in age to the abuser, it can be particularly hard to recognize tactics used in grooming. Be alert for signs that your teen has a relationship with an adult that includes secrecy, undue influence or control, or pushes personal boundaries.

Berkowitz told Oxygen.com that the grooming process can typically go on between a month to a year before anything happens sexually. 

"When she acts out sexually on the victim, he respects her so he thinks that she’s in love with him. He’s terrified but he goes along with it," she said.

Long-term effects on victim

“The damage can be horrendous,” Berkowitz, who has worked on several teacher-student sex abuse cases in civil court, told Oxygen.com.

“When she [the predator] pulls away or they are forced to because the parents and school find out, the child can feel very depressed,” she said. “There can be self-injury and attempts of suicide.”

She explained it can take young boys “years and years” to recover from such abuse. Often, she said, the boy will think that the teacher didn’t do anything wrong and that she was in love with him.

Long-lasting effects can result in the boys self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and they can become hyper-sexualized.

Furthermore, the trauma can make them feel disconnected from other people.

“They literally can’t make attachment to other girls,” Berkowitz told Oxygen.com. “Unless they seek help, they won’t be able to have a normal adult life.”

In the real-life case of Brittany Zamora, an Arizona teacher who sexually abused a sixth grader, the boy’s parents noted that he changed as a result of the abuse, according to a lawsuit obtained by Oxygen.com.

"He is different with her [his mother]," the lawsuit claimed. "He no longer looks at any female including his mother the same now that Zamora has worked her black magic.”

Why do they do it?

It’s really about power, Berkowitz told Oxygen.com. 

“They feel so powerful during the grooming,” she said, adding when teachers start to get attention from the victim, they feel very beautiful and like the boy is in love with them. 

“Most of these women have a deep hole inside them,” she stated.

While a high percentage of women who prey on students are married, Berkowitz said they don’t feel special in the marriage. 

“If anything, they never felt adored by anyone and nobody else can give them that except a young boy,” she explained.

She also added they typically lack empathy. 

“It’s either that emotionally they are very young or it’s really about feeling very inadequate in their lives and really wanting to have power over someone and to be in a classroom where you are being groomed, it feels very special,” she said.

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