The item appeared in the cable network’s news crawl. It moved slowly and cautiously across the screen, as if the words were trauma victims being transported by first responders: “A California teacher is under police investigation after moving in with his 18-year-old student.” Sadly, that’s unremarkable news in 2012. Here’s how I know this: The next item in the news crawl was about public facilities in New Jersey running out of toilet paper due to budget cuts.
The star of that news nugget is James Hooker, a business and computer teacher in California. The 41-year-old left his wife and children for one of his students, 18-year-old Jordan Powers. They first met when she was a freshman. Today, three years later, they’re living in an apartment together in Modesto.
They went public with their romance earlier this month. “He’s my best friend,” she told Good Morning America. “I mean, he’s more than just a lover.” Unfortunately, true love means little to the police, who are currently investigating Hooker to find out if their relationship began when she was a minor. Jordan’s mom Tammi Powers claims that her daughter and Hooker traded approximately 8,000 texts, emails and phone calls before she was of legal age. That’s, like, one LOL every nine minutes.
What did the school do about Hooker? They gave him paid administrative leave. That punishment was a little too soft for Jordan’s mom. So she took matters into her own hands and created a Facebook page with a thumbnail-sized photo of Hooker and the following message: “This is a picture of James Hooker from Enochs High School...a perverted man in his forties, who has taken advantage of a little girl. Now, James if you're reading this while you have my daughter—you better believe everyone will know you're a sick child molester...”
But keep in mind: Unless the authorities can prove something more sinister is at play, this is totally legal behavior. And it is in many places. In fact, three years ago the Georgia Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that it was legal for teachers to have sexual contact with students so long as they are of the age of consent. What’s the age of consent in Georgia, you ask? 16 years old. Sixteen. Years. Old.
Okay, just in case you missed that: If you live in Georgia, it’s legal for your 16-year-old daughter to date her high school teacher. I guess if you can get a license to operate a 2,000-pound piece of heavy machinery, you can go to second base with the woodshop monitor.
Of course, not every state provides such rights. Missouri’s Amy Hestir Student Protection Act imposes extremely strict limits on extracurricular contact between teachers and students, including making it illegal for the two to connect on any social media site that allows private communication. The bill is named for a 12-year-old girl who was bated into a sexually abusive relationship by her seventh grade music teacher. That crime took place in the 1980s. The bill just passed last year.
Some schools and universities aren’t leaving it to the state to protect its students. Earlier this week, the City University of New York proposed banning professor-student relationships entirely. “They’re trying to ban love,” one professor told the New York Post. “It’s not realistic, because grown women fall in love and have affairs with older men, and nobody can legislate this.” The professor quoted is male.
I realize men haven’t cornered the market on this practice. Actually in Florida, where I live, female teachers dating male students is something of a pastime. But there’s something about the male teacher-female student dynamic that’s especially irksome to me. Maybe that’s because I lost my high school crush to the science teacher.
Julia**. A junior. Long, straight black hair. Blue eyes. Pixie nose. Quiet. Sweet. Offensively smart. Outfitted in standard issue girl’s school uniform: Oxford shirt and short, short plaid skirt. (Julia could have belted out Britney's …Baby One More Time at any moment.) I had a major crush on her, but she paid little attention to me. I had friends that lobbied on my behalf, but it didn’t work. Then I heard that she was dating the physics teacher, Mr. Carroll**. This was the kind of mega-gossip that travels from homeroom to Spanish class to lacrosse practice at the speed of teen.
But nothing ever came of it. They dated without incident. In fact, they were together all throughout her college years. They ended up getting married. At post-collegiate happy hours, mutual friends would mention them in passing. He was no longer Mr. Carroll in these conversations. He was Martin. You know, Martin, a guy just like the rest of us. No, he’s not, I thought to myself, he’s Mr. Carroll, the balding teacher in pleated slacks who hooked up with a second-string field hockey player. First name familiarity would never make him normal. Martin. Ugh. Take your happily ever after somewhere else, Mr. Carroll.
How could I ever compete with a guy who had access to the teacher’s lounge? A guy who stood in front of the classroom, in command, armed with demerits and detentions. What girl wouldn’t be impressed by that? My locker was near the vending machine. That’s all I could offer her: Easy access to Mellow Yellow.
And that’s what this is all about: Power. A 41-year-old man in a position of authority. An 18-year-old girl sitting in his classroom, writing down everything he says in a notebook. Master and student, mentor and pupil.
It’s hard, near impossible, to legislate such things. You can’t make “true love” illegal. But here’s hoping that blog posts like this one create an unwritten law for teachers to follow, even if their schools and states don’t. James Hooker may very well be acting within the parameters of California law, but he’s treading in seriously dangerous waters. Because the Internet has a really, really, really good memory. So do angry moms.
** Names have been changed