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Judge goes light on former teacher

Christina Butler, who taught special education classes at Middleton High, said she was overwhelmed and bullied by her students. Psychologists and friends described her as fragile.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Christina Butler, who taught special education classes at Middleton High, said she was overwhelmed and bullied by her students. Psychologists and friends described her as fragile.

TAMPA — A former Middleton High School teacher got probation instead of prison Wednesday for having sex multiple times with one of her special education students.

The judge who sentenced Christina Butler said the victim, then 16 and borderline mentally retarded, was probably the more mature and less vulnerable of the two.

"Perhaps he initiated it," Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett said.

The prosecutor who will appeal Butler's sentence — five years of sex offender probation — didn't understand the judge's rationale.

"I don't know where he got that," Assistant State Attorney Anthony Duran said. "I don't know how a 16-year-old boy is ever more mature than a 33-year-old teacher."

The sentence stands in stark contrast to one Padgett handed down a year ago to another teacher facing similar charges. Last December, he sent former Wharton High teacher and basketball coach Jaymee Wallace to prison for three years, followed by three years of sex offender probation.

Wallace had a 19-month relationship with a female student, whose parents sought prison time for the teacher.

In Butler's case, neither the teen nor his parents were in court Wednesday, and no mention was made of their wishes.

Duran objected to the judge's departure from state sentencing guidelines, which called for at least 11 years and eight months in prison out of the maximum 30 years Butler faced.

But the sentence rested entirely in Padgett's hands. Butler, now 34, pleaded guilty in October to two felony counts of unlawful sexual activity without any plea deal from prosecutors.

During a three-hour hearing Wednesday, psychologists and her friends and family portrayed Butler as a fragile woman who suffered from bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. At 13, she was hospitalized with a concussion after being beaten by her stepfather.

They said she was not adequately medicated in fall 2007 when she began teaching a special education class at Middleton High. Some of the students harassed her and stole her money and cell phone.

A relatively new teacher, Butler said she felt overwhelmed from the start and didn't get proper support from the school administration.

"I was scared and depressed and very anxious every day I went to work," she said through tears in court.

One student was different, she said. He stood up for Butler, told the bullies to leave her alone.

"I saw him not as a 16-year-old student but as a man," she said. "He didn't seem like a child the way that he protected me and the way that he held me up."

She said he asked to come over to her home.

"I said yes."

The teen, who had borderline mental retardation, eventually got caught by police driving Butler's Jeep Grand Cherokee without a license. Butler was arrested Oct. 23, 2007, and admitted to detectives that the two had sex up to a dozen times.

Assistant Public Defender Maria Pavlidis said the teen told her office that he pursued his teacher and asked for her phone number. Though Butler acknowledged Wednesday that she knew her actions were wrong, psychologists testified that she didn't have a true sense of boundaries.

"She didn't take advantage of a vulnerable person in this situation," said Yolanda C. Leon, a psychologist who examined Butler. "She was the vulnerable person."

Butler will be a registered sex offender. She can no longer teach.

Her co-workers from her new job at the Animal Coalition of Tampa closed the spay and neuter clinic Wednesday afternoon and spoke in her support at the sentencing hearing.

Padgett, who faces mandatory retirement at year's end but plans to serve as a senior judge, said it was a unique case, "close to being upside down."

Most defendants show remorse after they get caught. The judge apparently thought Butler's was genuine.

"I don't think there's any chance in the world that you're going to reoffend," he told her.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

FAST FACTS

Doing time

How other teacher-student sex cases around Tampa Bay compare:

Debra Lafave: Received three years of house arrest and seven years of probation after pleading guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 14-year-old middle school boy.

Jaymee Wallace: Received three years of prison and three years of sex offender probation after pleading guilty in 2007 to having a sexual relationship with a student who played on her high school girls basketball team.

Ronald Lewis: Received one year of house arrest and nine years of sex offender probation after pleading guilty last month to unlawful sexual activity with a teen girl he coached in soccer.

Judge goes light on former teacher 12/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2008 2:38pm]
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