Sunday, October 25, 2009
A story in my local newspaper today has me thinking of responsibility and how some acts have totally unforeseen consequences.
I've written several times about teachers having sex with students, specifically female teachers on male students. The story today was about the sentencing of a female teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old female student in Moab, Utah. In 2003 the teacher, Arielle Beck, was convicted and sent to prison. After four years the conviction was overturned. During her trial the judge had improperly asked her prosecution questions. Rather than submit to another trial Beck pleaded out without specifically admitting guilt, was given a year's probation and a spot on the state's sex offender list.
But there's more. The family of the girl who was the victim of the teacher believes the wrong Beck inflicted reached far beyond just the sex abuse. Two years after the sex acts the girl, Kelly Sowell, hanged herself. Her suicide was as a result of harassment by fellow students who believed the teacher was innocent and that the girl had lied.
Not only that, in a macabre twist, the girl's two older brothers, Kevin and Cleve, also committed suicide. The mother of all three, Sherilyn Sowell, said the suicides were a result of the sex abuse committed by the teacher. She is quoted as saying, "If [Beck] had not done the crime in the first place, we believe Kelly would still be here, and so would Kevin, and so would Cleve . . .I don't think justice was truly served on Arielle."
There is a point where responsibility, even as the result of a crime, is non-prosecutable. Kelly Sowell's suicide was indirectly linked to the abuse by Beck, but she might not have killed herself had she not been harassed by her classmates. Where do those students fit in as far as responsibility goes? As for the brothers killing themselves, it seems bizarre that those suicides would be directly linked to their sister's abuse. There are many factors that go into suicide, and killing one's self is such an extreme reaction that it seems far beyond that one event. How would Beck, the original perpetrator, be responsible for those third party suicides? And how could any prosecutor prove it?
The mother has her grief. This is a family touched by terrible tragedy. Earlier this year Mrs. Sowell's husband was killed in a car accident that hurt her and her 13-year-old daughter, but was unrelated to the original crime. She also has her anger, assigning responsibility for the injuries inflicted on her and her family. Mrs. Sowell is right when she says that Beck held a position of trust and as a teacher had extra responsibility. I don't disagree with that. I'd give the teacher some responsibility for the girl's suicide, if only because her actions led to other actions that preceded the suicide. The suicides of the boys, as tragic as those events are, just can't be laid directly on the teacher's shoulders. Somewhere along the path that led to their deaths the boys took their own turn.
At the core of it is the teacher who violated her special position and used it for her own purposes. She took some responsibility when she took a plea. The other actions she is not legally responsible for, but has a moral responsibility. Unfortunately, morals are something that are difficult to legislate, and it would be hard to prove that anyone committed suicide as a direct result of Arielle Beck's actions. The law is better off leaving it alone. How Beck, who is now 30, deals with it as her life progresses will be the important thing. Will she say to herself, "I had illicit sex with an underage girl but I'm not responsible for the deaths of three people," or will she say, "My having illicit sex set in motion a series of events that caused the deaths of three people."