Dani Garavelli: Megan case merits adult response from us all

I’VE lost count of the number of people I’ve heard implying the case of Megan Stammers – the schoolgirl who ran off to France with her teacher – inhabits some kind of moral grey area; that because she is “months” away from the age of consent, it’s pretty much OK for a recently married man 15 years her senior to have taken her away from her home, her friends and her normal teenage life, in the shared delusion they are at the mercy of a passion so fierce it transcends social conventions.

It all started with Anne Diamond, who described the furore surrounding Megan’s disappearance as “a bit so-whatish”; as if Megan’s parents should just chill and forget that their daughter was wandering penniless round Europe with a man twice her age. But soon everyone seemed to be at it. Instead of Megan being seen as a victim and her teacher, Jeremy Forrest, as a potential predator, the protagonists of this sorry affair seemed to have been recast as star-crossed lovers persecuted for the crime of “falling in love”.

As the week progressed, the talk got more pernicious; teachers told how ­adolescent girls – newly aware of their sexual allure – sometimes exposed their cleavage or flashed their knickers in an ­attempt to attract older male attention, as if the mismatch between physical and emotional maturity diminished rather than increased the culpability of those willing to take advantage.

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Thankfully, that’s not how the police saw it.

After police issued an arrest warrant and the case featured on Crimewatch, the pair were located in Bordeaux. Forrest has been arrested on suspicion of child ­abduction and Megan has been placed in protective custody until she can be ­returned to her grateful family.

But what does the ambivalence towards her plight reveal about the way we view teenage girls in this country? Are early developers – particularly those who wear short skirts and make-up – fair game for any adult prepared to woo them with love songs and the promise of extra lessons? Or do they deserve protection from significantly older men – particularly men charged with their care – at least until they’ve left school. Do they sometimes even need protecting from themselves?

These are important questions given the publication last week of the report into the handling of abuse of teenage girls in Rochdale between 2004 and 2010. We now learn the reason the police and social services didn’t act more quickly was that – despite being aged between 13 and 15 – the girls, who were plied with fast food, drink and drugs so they could be passed round for sex, were considered to have been making “lifestyle choices”. ­Astonishingly, despite their age, they were labelled “prostitutes”. No serious attempt was made to extricate them from their ­deplorable circumstances because they were deemed to be the architects of their own misfortunes.

There are many differences between what happened in Rochdale and what happened to Megan Stammers. The ­majority of the Rochdale girls came from broken homes and were either in care or well-known to social services. Megan’s homelife appears to have been relatively stable. There is no suggestion that Forrest “groomed” her in the traditional sense, nor that he used violence or emotional blackmail to persuade her to hook up with him. And while the girls in Rochdale were passed round many men like pieces of meat, Megan was involved in an ­intimate one-to-one relationship. But there is an obvious parallel too. Despite the fact other pupils reported their relationship to the authorities after spotting them holding hands on a school trip to Los Angeles, it took seven months to launch an investigation, suggesting no-one took the issue particularly seriously.

Looking at images of Megan you can see why some might find it difficult to view her as a victim. Beautiful, with long black (and sometimes red) hair and a broad smile, she looks every inch the mistress of her own destiny. But her friends have said she can be quite vulnerable and in need of reassurance. Certainly, the experiences of the past few days will have allowed her to tick a few more aspirations off her bucket list, but they have also deprived her of the chance to forge her first fledgling relationship with a boy her own age.

Of course, we do not know if she and Forrest have had sex; that is a matter for the courts to establish, although, even if they haven’t, it is difficult to see how he could keep his job. But to other male teachers who find themselves, as Forrest blogged, “faced with a moral dilemma”, I would say this: get a grip. Pupils are off limits. It doesn’t matter if they moon over you in class, hang on your every word, pen you love notes or offer themselves on a ­silver platter, you’re the adult. Deal with it, if only to save your own career. If you can’t, have the pupil moved or give up teaching. What you emphatically shouldn’t do is to answer their overtures with messages as adolescent and lovesick as their own. And always remember: where someone is in a position of trust, the age of consent rises to 18. Just as rape is rape is rape, when it comes to their relationship with teachers, children are children are children. There is no grey area, just a handful of men (and increasingly women) in positions of responsibility who seem incapable of exercising either moral judgment or sexual restraint. «