The sad case of a former female teacher wrongfully accused by a male student of sexual misconduct begs the question: how do we protect our children, while ensuring the innocent are not prosecuted.
In America, once sex charges are leveled and made public against anyone – especially a teacher – the outcome may not matter, the harm has already been done to their reputations and lives. In the past, male teachers wrongfully accused of having sexual relations with female students have seen their lives and careers destroyed, despite the allegations being found baseless.
In sex cases involving minors who are the alleged victims, it more often appears that the accused are guilty and must prove their innocence, rather than the Constitutional presumption of innocence that every American enjoys.
Last week, former teacher Nicole Howell was found not guilty of having had a sexual relationship with a male student, but that did not stop the allegation result in her dismissal and eventual arrest.
"My life is ruined. Completely," Howell told "Good Morning America" in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. "My name has been dragged through the mud. I won't be able to teach again. Not because I did anything – I did not – but because of the situation."
It began in December, when Howell was suspended from her job as a teacher and assistant cheerleading coach at a Kentucky high school after one of the male students, a 16-year-old football player, claimed the two had once had a sexual relationship.
Howell, 26, of Florence, Kentucky, denied that the encounters ever happened, and argued that the only evidence against her were the “ramblings” of a high school youth who, at first, claimed the two had been involved in a threesome with another male student.
Nonetheless, investigators arrested Howell the next month on felony sex abuse charges.
"I think, honestly, it started because people overreacted," Howell said in the Good Morning America interview. "They took something that they thought looked like what they wanted it to look like – like a stereotype, 'a teacher is accused by a student,' and automatically, it happened... That's why I went to trial."
The bulk of the prosecution’s case presented at last week's trial focused on more than 800 text messages exchanged between Howell and the student, spanning about a month and a half.
But Howell discounted the number of those messages, claiming she "texts like that to everyone – students, teachers, cheerleaders" and compared the number to the nearly 2,000 messages she'd exchanged with her boyfriend in similar time periods.
Howell said she did not send the student any sexually explicit text messages, although he did send her some. She admitted that she should have stopped the messaging altogether.
Clearly, Howell exercised poor judgment in maintaining text message relationships with students – especially a male teen who had sent sexually suggestive messages to her.
"I should've said, 'That's inappropriate.' I blew it off. It was something I dealt with on a daily basis with other students, other male students," she said.
The school district had no policy against text messaging, Howell's attorney, Eric Deters, noted.
Howell, now working at a bank, said she would love to return to teaching but believes the scandal of the trial will follow her everywhere.
"It's what I've always wanted to do," she said of teaching. "I don't think I'll get that opportunity again."
Although it's unlikely anything will happen to her accuser, Howell plans to file civil litigation against unspecified targets.
Howell was a first-year English teacher finishing up a lesson on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" when she was pulled out of her Dayton High School classroom in December and told she was being suspended.
"I thought it was preposterous," she said in July.
She was also an assistant cheerleading coach, putting her right in the middle of a throng of cheerleaders and football players who practiced, and socialized side by side.
Howell said the beginning of her first year as a teacher was going well until early December, when she started hearing rumors in the hallway.
"There were a couple of students snickering about a teacher involved in a threesome," she said.
Then, the second boy, who was supposedly involved, then a senior, told her the rumors were about him, her and the accuser.
"I'm a first-year teacher," Howell said. "I didn't know what to do."
So she sought the advice of a fellow teacher, who told her to speak to the principal to get ahead of the rumor mill.
According to Howell, the principal told her "that usually these things die out. We'll look into it.'"
For a few days, it seemed like the matter had ended, Howell said. She was told that both boys told the principal there was no sexual contact. Other rumors that followed, including that the accuser's father drove his son to her apartment for sex, were also disproved, Howell said.
But on Dec. 15, when she was suspended, Howell said the principal told her that the accuser, who had been threatened with possible expulsion for lying about such a serious allegation, had recanted his denial and was now accusing Howell of having had sex with him.
Howell said she left school in disbelief and hired a lawyer.
Howell said that while she knew who her accuser was and had interacted with him as part of the football-cheerleading team dynamic, she never once had laid a hand on him or any other student, nor had she even been alone with him in school or any where else.
Somehow, she said, the boy had gotten her cell phone number, and the two had begun a series of text messages in October and November. But Howell didn't think anything of it, since 25 cheerleaders on the team had her number and also text-messaged her. And she knew of other teachers who texted their students.
But Howell, whose apartment was photographed by Covington police, learned in early January that there was a warrant out for her arrest. She said a detective told her that she could come in and take a polygraph test that might clear the matter up.
So she did, but not before submitting to a private polygraph, which Howell said she "passed with flying colors."
When Howell got to the police station Jan. 8, she was told she could not take a polygraph test. After being placed in the waiting room for more than an hour, she was arrested on one count of first-degree sexual abuse.
Her parents bailed her out of jail a few hours later.
"I want to be exonerated," she said before the trial. "I want this case to be dismissed."
During the trial, the 16-year-old football player said they had sex four times in her apartment and that she gave him vodka, and they exchanged hundreds of text messages. The phone company deleted copies of the text messages, so they were never seen.
The jury deliberated for less than two hours before acquitting her in the four-day Kenton County trial.
Had she been convicted, Howell could have faced one to 5 years in prison, county Commonwealth Assistant Attorney Stefanie Kastner said in July. She would have also had to register as a sex offender for 20 years.