Back in August, the rumor around Lexington, Nebraska, Middle School was that 25-year-old math teacher Kelsey Peterson had a boyfriend — a 13-year-old former student. People had complained to administrators three months earlier that Peterson spent too much time hanging out with the kids. When new complaints reached administrators linking her to the student in August, her principal gave her a verbal warning, but that was it.
“We did not put an investigator on her and watch her,” said district Superintendent Todd Chessmore, who has ordered all school and district employees to not speak with reporters. “We did not see this as something except for something we needed to deal with in a very informal manner.”
A couple of months later, after a confrontation with Chessmore, Peterson and the boy took off. Going missing for a week, they were eventually picked up by a Mexican police officer in Baja California. The boy said in an interview with The Associated Press later that he and the teacher had sex twice. She cried when they were parted.
Now Peterson is in federal custody and expected to face federal charges of crossing state lines to have sex with a minor, an offense punishable by 10 years to life in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Experts who study sexual misconduct by teachers says district officials should have seen a bad situation when they first fielded complaints, and done more.
“If a school district has reason to give warning, you conduct an investigation,” said Robert Shoop, director of Kansas State University’s Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership. “You don’t just say ‘Be a good person,’ and then go about your business as if nothing has ever happened. You have to pay attention to what’s going on.”
Wayne Promisel, a retired Virginia detective who has investigated many sex abuse cases, said if the district had enough reason to put Peterson on administrative leave and start an investigation, it should have called police before calling the teacher.
“If you’re that committed to realize that you think there’s something afoot, that’s when you … call in the locals to bring objectivity to it,” Promisel said. “Law enforcement is there 24/7, 365 and they don’t turn away complaints, especially when kids are involved.”
The case comes at a time when lawmakers and governors in seven states and Congress are expressing renewed interest in the issue of sexual misconduct by teachers following an investigation by the AP that concluded last month.
The AP found that states took action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misbehavior, and that investigators and academics who study the problem believe it is badly underreported. There are about 3 million public school teachers nationwide.
The Peterson case has similarities to many of the incidents that the AP examined. The student was troubled, the teacher popular. She was trusted in the community and viewed as “cool” by students, who would gather at her classroom and at her home. Authorities, when rumors started, decided not to immediately pull the teacher from the classroom.
“Rumors are gold,” said Mary Jo McGrath, a California attorney who has worked on teacher sexual abuse cases for three decades. “Rumors truly will light the way to tangible evidence of what’s going on.”
Shoop said the circumstances of the case point toward a certain type of teacher who commits abuse: one with a poor sense of boundaries and ethics, who allows the relationship with a student to go beyond that of a close mentor.
“These people do a tremendous amount of harm to children, but oftentimes the adult says that they didn’t do anything wrong, that it’s true love and that people just don’t understand,” Shoop said. “The female or the male who quote ‘falls in love’ with a child doesn’t have an understanding that they’re actually raping and exploiting this child.”
Neighbors, former classmates, students and Chessmore say Peterson coached sports, played basketball with her 8-year-old daughter in her front yard and was popular as a student and a teacher.
People who know Peterson say her daughter was born when Peterson was a junior at Lexington High. Her then-boyfriend was the father, but the pair broke up and he eventually moved to Texas.
“She had a good Christian upbringing,” said Julie Rosentreader, 25, who went to middle school with Peterson.
Peterson’s daughter was believed to be with her parents in nearby Gothenburg, Neb. Multiple attempts by the AP to contact them were unsuccessful.
The boy became Peterson’s math student in 2005, though their association continued after she taught him.
The boy told the AP that Peterson helped him through a tough time earlier this year by listening and writing to him while he was at the Nebraska Boys Ranch in western Nebraska, a home for at-risk youth. The boy said he went to the home after trying to run away from his home in Lexington.
He described her as his best friend — not his girlfriend — and said he could tell her anything.
According to police, letters found in Peterson’s apartment sent by the boy from the home said he still loved his “Baby Gurl,” longed to have her hold him and that the relationship was not just about the sex.
The AP had previously named the boy but later removed his name because the most recent charges allege he was the victim of a sex crime.
Though the letters didn’t surface until police began investigating in October, rumors swirled school hallways that the two were in a relationship in August.
But complaints the school received weren’t enough to make Chessmore think that Peterson might be having sex with a student, and a verbal warning from the principal seemed to solve the problem, the superintendent said.
The boy said Peterson told him to stay away, but they began talking again a month later and Peterson eventually suggested the trip.
The boy said he went along with the plan because he wanted to get away from his problems in Lexington. He told Peterson that he wanted to visit his birthplace in Penjamo, a small town in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, where his father lives.
He was last seen in Lexington on Oct. 26.
One day earlier, Chessmore had told Peterson he was putting her on paid leave and investigating new complaints from school staff of her relationship with the boy. Chessmore said those complaints were more serious than ever, raising suspicions that Peterson and the boy were having sex.
Chessmore said he and Peterson had a brief conversation in which he told her not to return to the school, and she walked out the door. Chessmore would not say what Peterson said.
Chessmore said he coached a summer girls’ softball team with Peterson.
“If you would have seen her working with the kids on the field, if you would have seen her in the classroom, if you would have seen her in life, she was a typical 25-year-old woman,” Chessmore said.
She was an active community member, playing on softball teams or doing other activities. She was the daughter of educators, a basketball player and member of the National Honors Society and Future Educators of America.
Her duplex apartment had an adjustable basketball hoop in the driveway, set 8 feet high for her daughter. A sign by the front door showed she was part of Lexington Middle School’s coaching staff. Two patio chairs, a yellow plastic chair for a small child and a half-filled laundry hamper sat on a small fenced-in patio on the apartment’s side.
A relative of the landlord said Peterson gave no notice before leaving.
Chessmore said he wasn’t 100 percent confident Peterson would lose her job when he put her on leave.
“I’m not sure no matter what age you are, writing a letter to someone telling them you love them makes you a sex offender,” said Chessmore, adding that the district thought it had enough evidence to discipline Peterson and try to fire her.
“Anything criminal, we didn’t have. The police got that later,” Chessmore said.
Chessmore recommended on Wednesday that the school board fire her. The board was set to meet Monday to vote on the recommendation. The district would then file a complaint to the Nebraska Department of Education to try to get Peterson’s teaching license revoked.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in El Centro, Calif., contributed to this report.