explainer

Dani's 50-year-old teacher admitted he 'had a thing' for her. Then he invited her over.

This post deals with sexual assault and might be triggering for some readers.

"Can I have your phone number?" 

It was lunchtime at the only school in a small coastal town of New South Wales. Dani* was a Year 12 student with both the thrill and fear of her future on the horizon, in the midst of the stresses of completing her Higher School Certificate.  

On this particular Wednesday, she was plodding along in the playground, by herself, when the school’s PE teacher approached her. It seemed odd, considering he hadn’t taught her for a few years. 

But when they began talking, she quickly realised this wasn’t about her studies. 

He wanted to let her know he "had a thing" for her. He was a 50-year-old man. She was a 17-year-old girl. 

Dani was taken aback. Her friends often joked that their PE teacher had a 'crush' on her - a remark she would simply brush aside. Clearly, though, her friends' instincts were right. 

He had a deep infatuation for her. Dani didn’t have any such feelings for him, but she also didn’t see the harm in sharing her number. 

Two weeks later, at 10pm on a weeknight, her phone pinged. 

"Hey, do you want to come over for a study session?"

****

The text took Dani back to the times he had taught her, in her first three years at this school.

When she was 14 years old, her stepfather was emotionally and physically abusing her at home. At the time, there was only one person who would ask her about her home life: her PE teacher. 

During their classes in those early years, he would always encourage her to open up to him.   

"I would tell him about my home life and what I was going through. And then he started opening up about his personal life by telling me his wife had just left him."

Dani can’t remember ever feeling uncomfortable. 

"I thought he was wanting to help and was genuinely being a nice guy. I think I was just happy to have someone to talk to. No one else wanted to listen to what I was going through."

In Year 10, Dani’s abuse stopped when her stepfather took his own life. She hadn’t spoken to her PE teacher about it since their last class together.

But he certainly hadn’t stopped thinking of her. He would later confess he had been "in love" with Dani since she was in Year 8. 

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This PE teacher taught Dani in Years 7, 8 and 9. Image: Getty.

****

When Dani received that late night text, she remembers feeling wanted. Like someone actually cared. 

It’s impossible to explain or rationalise the emotions of being the victim of grooming - not that she saw herself through the prism of victimhood. She believed this was a choice she was freely making. 

She remembers arriving at an expensive-looking house on the hill. When he opened the door, he quickly declared his partner was out of town. 

As she stepped foot inside, Dani remembers she couldn’t stop shaking. He asked if she was cold, although they both knew it was warm outside. 

"I don't know why I can't stop shaking," she told him. 

But she knew it was because she was nervous. Dani didn’t know what was going to happen. All she knew was that quickly after arriving, he began "love-bombing" her - a manipulation technique that sees the abuser overwhelm the victim with loving words and actions. 

"You're so mature for your age," he told her. "There's no one else like you that's your age. You're so smart and wise."

Soon they were having sexual intercourse. 

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Then Dani began to bleed. His response to her blood is etched in her brain like a permanent scar. 

"He made a joke that because he was a PE teacher, he had pushed so hard into my cervix that it bled.

"I felt embarrassed. I was 17. I was a kid, and he was so much older than me. I'd only had one sexual partner beforehand. I just tried to convince myself that I was okay. I told myself, 'I'm fine, I'm here, this is what I want to do.'"

****

The teacher messaged her the following day, but then there was silence. Dani carried the secret with her through to the end of her HSC. 

She only told one friend. They knew sex with a teacher was "frowned upon," but neither of them knew the teacher’s actions were illegal. 

They’d never heard of teacher-student relationships outside of movies and television shows, like Pretty Little Liars. In the hugely popular drama, one of the central couples is high school student Aria who has a long-term relationship with her teacher, Ezra. It was the only point of reference Dani and her friend had. 

"I just thought I was almost 18 - he just saw me as an adult. I never even thought about the fact that he would have had something to me when I was a young pre-teen."

****

A few weeks before Dani graduated, her former teacher asked to meet up with her again. He tried to have sex when they met up.

"I don't want to do that," she told him. "I'm not in the right mind frame."

But he was relentless. They had sex. After she’d left school, Dani didn’t hear from him for a few months. She thought it was over. Until he messaged her in early January. 

"I’ve been away with my family. I can't stop thinking about you. You mean so much to me," it read. 

They met up twice in those early months of 2016. The first time, he had sex with her in the back of a van because his partner was at home. 

The second time, Dani felt apprehensive about seeing him. She knew she didn’t want to have sex with him again.

"I don't want to do anything. I'm not interested in that," she told him beforehand. 

"That’s fine," he assured her. 

But when she arrived at the secluded beach he’d asked to meet him at, the 'love-bombing' returned. In fact, he told her he planned on leaving his wife for her, and buying an investment property for her to live in.

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When Dani expressed to him that she was excited to leave the small town and pursue her dream career in law enforcement, he tried to tell her it was the wrong decision. He was committed to convincing her to stay.

"He was trying to plan trips with me. He wanted to take me to the Blue Mountains."

Dani knew it would be the wrong decision, so she cut off all communication with him.

****

"Can I have your phone?" 

It was a few months after Dani had last spoken to her teacher. Her mum was now standing in her bedroom with a concerned look on her face. 

The Department of Education had called. They knew. 

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Dani lied to her mum. 

But the Department of Education had proof. The next day, she was at Newcastle Police Station. 

She told the police the truth, but she wanted them to know she was never "forcibly raped". Despite the power imbalance, she was convinced she had independently made the decision to have sex with her teacher. She knew it was out of the ordinary, but she didn’t know he had broken the law. 

"The police kept saying to me, 'It doesn't matter if you consented. He was a teacher. You were a student. He was 50, and you were 17. That's not okay.'

"Then I mentioned that I told him about the abuse I was going through as a child. And they said, 'He used that against you. He was being that male figure that you wanted.' I kept asking, 'Are you sure?' It just didn't sound right. I couldn't see myself as a victim."

Police didn’t give her a choice. He was a teacher and therefore posed a risk to the community. With her statement, they felt they had irrefutable evidence. 

"They didn't say, 'Do you want to press charges?' They said, 'We're pressing charges for you.'"

The Department of Education knew the school's PE teacher had had sex with Dani. Image: Getty.

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****

Dani was working at the checkout in her local supermarket, saving money during her first year out of school. 

Her mother, who also worked there, rushed up to her. 

"We need to go home."

Dani looked at her phone. 

"I had all these messages from people I went to school with. I had missed calls from family and friends. The local news had posted photos of him being arrested. It was all over Facebook. It was really confronting. People were messaging me, asking 'Was this with you?'"

Dani went home and threw up. No one had warned her the media would be involved. She barely felt prepared for him to be arrested, let alone for everyone in her life to find out about her deepest secret.

"I just had so much anxiety. I just didn't know what to do. Everyone knew it was me."

****

In a small town, the news was everywhere by sundown. But the community response wasn’t one of compassion for the teenage girl who had been groomed and abused by a teacher she had trusted. Instead, it was one of contempt. 

She was told she was a slut; a whore; a skank. 

"When it came out, the response was never, 'That's so terrible this happened to you'. People said, 'If you were going to do that, why didn't you pick someone better looking? Why didn't you pick a younger teacher?'"

Overnight, Dani went from being a popular student to someone who only had one friend - the one she had entrusted all along. 

"I'd go to the local Thai restaurant and people would look at me and put their hands over their mouth, laughing. I would drive to the local McDonalds and people would shout out, 'Why don't you go f**k your teacher again?' 

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"It was just ruthless."

The worst part was that no one would hire her.

After applying for a job at a sandwich shop, the owner was blunt: "I’m really sorry. You seem really nice. But even though you're not publicly named in the newspaper, everyone knows it's you - I know it's you. It'll be bad for my business. No one will want to buy a sandwich from you."

Dani put on a brave face, went home, and cried. 

"You would never have known there was a perpetrator."

****

It was nearly midnight. Dani’s phone was ringing. It was her former PE teacher. He had pleaded 'not guilty' and had been released on bail.

"I can't go to jail. I'll give you $10,000 if you drop the case," he begged. "If I go to jail, I'll kill myself."

He knew that Dani could not once again deal with the trauma of a man killing himself and her feeling the blame for it. She still hadn’t processed the trauma of her late stepfather.

But she also couldn’t drop the charges. She’d already given her statement. It wasn’t her decision to press charges in the first place. 

"I just apologised and declined his offer."

****

Dani was ready for the jury to hear her story. Image: Getty. 

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It was five minutes before court proceedings were due to begin. Dani was standing inside Newcastle Court. She was anxious but prepared. It had been over a year of readying herself for the brutality of the court system. In preparation for trial, she’d gone through the "humiliating process" of being asked every detail she could remember of their three sexual encounters - from where he ejaculated to what colour underwear she was wearing.

She knew his defence team would accuse her of lying. She was ready to stay strong nevertheless. She felt ready for the jury to hear her story. 

Her lawyers came up to her. 

"We’re so sorry. There’s a legal loophole that no one knew about. His defence team has just found it."

In NSW, the law stated that for sex with a student to be illegal, they must be "under special care". That meant he needed to be teaching her at the time. And despite the fact he had taught her for three years, she was not in any of his classes at the time they had sex. 

"The loophole meant that he could have been the principal and had sex with me and he would have gotten away with it. They had to be teaching you in the classroom at that point in time."

It was a loophole that had never been found before. 

"There was nothing I could do."

Up until this point, the teacher had always insisted on his innocence. But as the loophole was revealed, so too was the truth. He admitted he had sex with Dani. But what could they do about it?

She was beyond disappointed. Their only option now was to charge him for perjury - after he had earlier offered Dani $10,000 to drop the case against him. He denied he made that call, but the phone records proved he did. 

He was convicted and spent one year in jail for perjury - compared to the maximum of eight years' jail time he would have been subject to otherwise. 

In 2017, Dani’s case made national headlines. There was great shock that this loophole had existed for over a century. But thanks to this case, the laws were urgently changed in NSW

In early 2018, the NSW Government introduced legislation to expand the Crimes Act 1900 to ensure a teacher who has a sexual relationship with any student at their high school can face jail time.

****

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It’s been nearly six years since Dani left school and four years since her PE teacher was acquitted.

It took a long time, and a lot of counselling, for Dani to grapple with what happened to her. Even though the now 23-year-old didn’t initially understand the abuser-victim relationship, she now unequivocally does. 

"As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to the undeniable realisation that he did groom me. It was really hard to accept because like I said, I've always thought of myself as smart. I never thought I would be a victim. But now I realise that it was out of my control. No one chooses to be a victim. I was completely manipulated."

About a year ago, after discussing it with her counsellor, she decided to reach out to him. She had one question for him: Why did you do this?

"He told me he’d been to a counsellor who said he's not a perpetrator, and that he just made a mistake. He also said he'd had conversations with his new partner, who told him that sex to women is never just sex - there's always feelings involved. He told me, 'I think that's why you got so emotional.'

"I wasn't a woman," Dani replied. "I was a 17-year-old girl."

She blocked his number. 

Dani has since moved towns, but she still walks the streets never knowing if she’ll bump into the man who sexually abused her. 

"That's the worst part about it. I just don't know if I'm going to go to my local pub for dinner and he's going to be there. I never want to see him. I don't want to have a conversation with him.

"I've got closure in the fact that he will never see that what he did is wrong. That's fine. I’ll just keep going to therapy."

Despite the ongoing trauma, Dani is extremely proud of herself. She knows she will never get justice. But because of her, others will. 

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature Image: Getty.