WHEN MINNESOTA high school teacher Julie Feil stood before a judge after pleading guilty to having a three-month sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy who was in her English class, she spoke of love and intimacy and immense pain.
"I broke the law by sharing a physical and emotional intimacy with someone I believed would love me and support me always," the tearful 32-year-old Hastings, Minn., woman said at her August 1998 sentencing hearing. "I loved him the best way I knew how, and I've spent the last five months fighting for that incredible love that forced me to cross the boundaries that separated us."
The judge spoke of something else -- infatuation, obsession and stalking -- in sentencing her to seven years in prison.
Feil's courtroom statement reflected what many experts say motivates female educators across the country who have inappropriate sexual contact with their students -- misconduct that two Carroll County teachers were charged with last month.
Male teachers typically are interested in the sex and the control, but female educators more often are attempting to get attention and fill an emotional void with what they consider a consensual and loving affair, psychologists and others who have worked with sex offenders said.
"Quite often, these women see a younger person as someone they can be in love with and have the kind of relationship they've always wanted," Jane Matthews, a Minnesota psychologist who was a consultant on Feil's case, said in a 1999 interview after Feil was transferred to Arizona after she repeatedly tried to contact the boy from prison.
"Their relationships with older men have not been rewarding and they get discouraged of having any power in a relationship," said Matthews, a co-author of a book about female sex offenders. "So they turn to younger men to have a powerful and adequate relationship."
Although student-teacher relationships upset each community in which allegations of an inappropriate and illegal tryst arise -- as they have in Carroll -- experts say that child sexual abuse in school is far more widespread than most people think. Psychologists have come up with a word -- hebophilia -- to describe the disorder characterized by selective sexual preoccupation with adolescents.
Far less common are the instances in which a teacher has sex with multiple students -- as Carroll County substitute teacher Kimberly L. Merson, 24, and student teacher Tracie L. Mokry, 21, are accused of doing. And though the closeness in age between the Carroll teachers and their teen-age students might make the suspected conduct mildly more palatable to the community, it does not change the criminality of the alleged actions, experts say.
"It's all the same -- they are aroused and enjoy it, and they're in positions of power where they are the older person and are able to call the shots -- so it really isn't an issue of how many or how often or how old," said Deloris T. Roys, a criminal psychologist and director of three clinics in Georgia that treat only sex offenders.
"Their world revolves around themselves, and there is seldom a recognition of appropriate boundaries between them and others," she said. "Where they begin and end and where others begin and end is fuzzy for them. So instead of seeing the rigid boundary that says `I am me, the teacher, and you are you, the student, and those lines can never cross,' they say, `I am someone who cares about young people and you're a young person and I need to be here to do for you and the best way I can do for you is become your sexual partner.'"
Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft has spent 15 years researching and leading workshops about sexual abuse and harassment in schools. She quotes a survey from the early 1990s in which 13.5 percent of North Carolina high school graduates reported that they had had sexual intercourse with a teacher.
"While we might think it seems high, we don't have anything that would contradict that," she said. "Most data says that on average about 15 percent of kids are sexually harassed or abused by a teacher -- and that could mean anything from sexual intercourse to verbal or visual harassment -- during their schooling. There is very little available that gives us nationwide data."
From Morristown, N.J., and New Orleans to Atlanta, San Diego and small towns in between, teachers have been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with their students. Most of the hundreds of cases involve one teacher and one student, experts say. And although most involve male teachers, it's the female teachers' illicit relationships with students that often make national headlines.
In perhaps the most famous case, Seattle teacher Mary K. Letourneau was imprisoned three years ago for having sex with a boy, starting when he was 12, and giving birth to their two children.