After disappearing with her 30 year old teacher Jeremy Forrest, 15 year old Megan Stammer was found with him in France at the end of last week, and has now been returned to her parents. Newspapers and news reports happily reported that she had been found ‘safe and well’, and her stepfather gave a press conference to thank the police and the public for their support, and tell of his relief that their ordeal was over. Forrest has released a statement through his French lawyer stating that he will not fight extradition to the UK, where he faces charges of child abduction, so that he can be closer to Megan. His lawyer said:
“…going home will take him back closer to the person he loves. What these two people have been through is a story of intense love and passion. His only crime is to have fallen in love with a 15-year-old, without any recourse to violence or manipulation. Of course, he is devastated and only wants to be reunited with Megan.”
Comment sections are filled with people supporting the married teacher, asking why the police have wasted so much time on this case when they could be using it to catch ‘real paedophiles’. Many people judge Megan, at 15, to be capable of making the decision to start a relationship with her teacher, a married man twice her age. Much has been made of the fact that they ran to France, and in France the age of consent is 15, causing many French commentators to wonder why the uptight and prudish British are getting so worked up over a harmless May to December love affair that’s just come a few seasons too early.
But Forrest rightly deserves to face charges for his behaviour, and no amount of declarations of love, and finger pointing to the two vile paedophile rings who were sentenced last week, absolve Forrest for his crimes.
Forrest was Stammers’ teacher. He has the same duty of care to Megan as he does to all of his pupils: to keep her safe from harm and to provide her with the best education that he is capable of doing. As soon as he began to realise that he was attracted to Megan, and that the feelings were reciprocated, this duty, not his own feelings of ‘passion and love’ for a minor in his care, should have been the guiding principle of how he behaved. Instead he chose to allow these feelings to grow, both his own and Megan’s, and texted declarations of love and hand holding on school trips became fleeing the country, shedding Megan’s family, education, and secure future. He betrayed the trust placed in him by his employers, the parents whose children he taught, his wife’s, and all of his pupils. Especially Megan’s.
Megan was not only his pupil, but 15 years of age and below the legal age of consent in the UK. Her experience of the world, like any 15 year old, is limited. She is not independent either legally or financially. She has not had time to begin building up the educational achievements that will allow her to take her life a direction of her choosing. She cannot legally marry, vote, drink or smoke, or even work for more than 2 hours a day during term time. She is not an autonomous woman, but a young person taking her first steps into adulthood. When she set off to school in the morning she should have been heading into a safe environment where the only romance that was on the cards was with one of her peers.
She was a minor in a classroom talking to her teacher when she met Forrest. To judge that his behaviour was okay because he is by all accounts a nice guy who appears to genuinely love Megan, is to completely romanticise an abusive situation where a teacher in a position of power used his access to a young woman to begin a relationship with a pupil that culminated in his illegally leaving the country with her.
Tolerating and romanticising the relationship between Megan Stammers and Jeremy Forrest is a dangerous precedent to set in a society where teenage girls are already sexualised and objectified by the media, their peers, and their own self-image. Children go to school to learn, to give themselves the best possible start in life. If, as a society, we begin to think that it’s okay for teachers to begin relationships with pupils in their care if they love them, we are at risk of robbing many young women and men of their education. School isn’t where you find your older lover, it’s where you go to learn.
I wish Megan well after her experience, and I hope that she is able to return to school amid the scandal and apportioning of blame, and perform to the very best of her ability in her exams. I hope that she is treated with empathy and respect by her teachers and her peers, and that her parents are able to protect her from the judgements about her role in events. Because I don’t think she’s home ‘safe and well’, Juliet to Forrest’s Romeo. I think she is a young woman whose trust has been abused, who will have to live with the stigma and guilt of being the girl who ran off with her teacher for many years to come.