TAMPA — Calling her "a parent's worst nightmare," a judge sentenced former Hillsborough County schoolteacher Ethel Anderson to 38 years in prison Monday for performing oral sex and other lewd acts on a 12-year-old boy she tutored on weekends.
Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe's severe punishment of Anderson seemed designed to send a message in a county that has attracted disproportionate attention for sex scandals involving female educators. The most notorious of them, Debra Lafave, managed to avoid incarceration completely after pleading guilty to sex with a 14-year-old boy.
"There are those that believe that nothing's wrong if the defendant is a woman and the victim is a male," Tharpe said Monday. "This court does not recognize gender. If it's proven, as an adult, that you had sex with a child, you can expect to go to prison."
Anderson's attorney, Bill Knight, was visibly flummoxed after his client's sentence was handed down. He said Anderson would be filing an appeal but declined to talk about Tharpe's decision. "At the risk of speaking indelicately about a number of subjects, I will not be commenting," he said.
Anderson, 31, invoked her young daughter while begging Tharpe for mercy before her sentencing. The girl would be about 44 years old at the time of her mother's release if Anderson serves her full sentence.
The male victim in the case was present at the sentencing, along with his mother, who said she was satisfied with Anderson's punishment. "I just left it to God and the judge, and they took care of it," she said.
In a letter to the court, the victim's mother said her son's "innocence is lost forever," and he had felt obligated to change schools because of the episode.
"It tears me up to know that his first sexual experiences in life were with you Ethel Anderson a predator," she wrote. "There were many times during this trial I wish I could have gotten up from my seat to scream, yell or slap you. I feel like I could tear you apart with my bare hands, but those that know me know that I would never do that."
Anderson is the latest in a succession that includes such figures as former Hillsborough teacher Stephanie Ragusa — sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2010 for having sex with boy students, Ragusa was known for her pigtail braids and the goofy smile she frequently flashed during court appearances — and Lafave.
The preternaturally photogenic Lafave, a former Greco Middle School teacher with platinum hair and icy blue eyes, pleaded guilty in 2005 to sex with a 14-year-old boy. She received three years of house arrest followed by probation. While Lafave's attorney famously argued that she was too attractive to safely serve prison time and some assailed Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman for leniency, the case against her was also weakened by the victim's reluctance to testify.
Anderson's trial, which ended with a guilty verdict in September on nine child sex-abuse charges, likewise became a national media spectacle. Testifying in her own defense, Anderson claimed that sexually graphic text messages she sent the boy were part of a teaching technique "to get his attention for the purpose of his education."
Those texts, including such messages as My heart is seriously pounding right now thinking of you and Tingles just reading that — the latter sent by Anderson to the boy after he said he wanted to have sex with her — were important evidence against Anderson. Prosecutors also had a secretly captured recording of her admitting to the boy's mother she had performed oral sex on him.
Anderson was suspended without pay from her job at Mango Elementary School after her arrest in March 2012, according to Hillsborough school officials. She resigned later that year. Before her career foundered in scandal, she had been a rising star, earning a teaching award in 2011.
Anderson had gotten to know her victim as his first-grade teacher. The sex acts between the two took place at her Riverview home during tutoring sessions.
Anderson — appearing without makeup and in a baggy prisoner's jumpsuit, a stark contrast to her sharply tailored appearance at trial — wept as she asked Tharpe to think about her own promising past and her daughter's future before imposing his sentence.
"I keep telling myself this is not my life," she said. "I'm a mother, I'm not a monster. … There must be something in me that shows I'm worthy of mercy."
Anderson's father, Jesse Harris, said his granddaughter asks about her mom every day when he picks her up from school. "It's always the same: 'When is my mommy coming home?' " A psychologist who had treated Anderson before her arrest said she had bipolar disorder. But Tharpe was unswayed by these appeals.
"As parents, we entrust our children to their teachers. We have every right to believe our children are safe," Tharpe said. "You, Ms. Anderson, are a parent's worst nightmare."
News researcher John Martin and staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.