RARELY does the sentence handed down by a judicial officer in this state attract weeks of controversy.

But the two years imprisonment handed down by Justice Shan Tennent to Sarah Vercoe, a teacher who had sexual relations with a few teenage schoolboys, appears to have split our community. This newspaper’s letters to the editor have reflected that division, and last week on this page Lew Bretz argued against the treatment of Ms. Vercoe by the legal system.

There are three aspects of the Vercoe case that should provide cause for reflection by our society. Firstly, Ms Vercoe has been presented as the ‘fallen woman’ by the legal system and some elements of the media. That this is the case in the 21st century is disturbing and it should outrage champions of womens’ rights.

It has been common throughout history, for society to shun women who, and it nearly always involves sex, ‘sin’ against convention. From the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene to thousands of women subjected to abuse by the notorious Irish Catholic Church, there is a long tradition of ‘making a public example’ of women who transgress society’s notion of morality. Ms Vercoe is another victim of that tradition.

When Justice Tennent sentenced Ms Vercoe earlier this month she used these words. “The sentence must also reflect the public condemnation for crimes such as these and the impact of the crimes on the young victims.” In other words, a public example is being made of this young woman.

But as one very experienced educator told this columnist last week, there are male teachers who have been getting away with sleeping with their students for years. These male teachers have always been able to cover their tracks. Ms Vercoe on the other hand, was subjected to a witch-hunt by the authorities.

The second aspect concerns our society’s hypocritical morality about abuse. While parents and others in our ommunity ‘throw rocks’ at Ms Vercoe, they are happy to allow a situation where parents feed their children junk food, allow them to smoke and don’t make them participate in sport. The result — a state of unfit, obese, diabetes ridden young people.

Let’s not beat around the bush here. The life long adverse consequences of parents allowing teenagers to grow fat on hamburgers, soft drinks and lack of exercise are likely to be far greater than those resulting from a sexual interlude between a 16 or 17 year old schoolboy and a 20 something school teacher. Yet the authorities are not charging parents and junk food companies with child abuse.

Finally, the Vercoe case is another example of the fact that our judges and magistrates must avoid sending people to prison wherever possible. Society rarely benefits from the jailing of people who present no security threat. Worse still, the prison system in Tasmania, as this columnist knows, is riddled with human rights abuse.

Lost, sad and lonely

Consider Ms Vercoe’s case. As Justice Tennent herself accepted, Ms Vercoe, at the time of the commission of the crimes, was “lost, sad and lonely. You perceived yourself as professionally ostracised and your marriage was breaking down. You had been a teacher for just a year and was not coping with difficulties being experienced. You found the move from student to teacher difficult.”

Why then, send this young woman to prison? A young woman who will never teach again (because our society is not good at forgiveness) and who needs, and should get mental health support. Prison will simply make this young woman’s attempt to get her life back on track more difficult. Is that justice? Is that in society’s best interests? The answer to both questions is a resounding No.

To send this young woman to jail for crimes that on a scale of one to ten are down the lower end simply reinforces the point made earlier. Ms Vercoe has been made an example of — she has been banished from society just the way women over thousands of years have been shunned by their communities for breaking the sexual morality code.

One final point. It seems that we need to rethink our attitudes to young people today. Many of those, including those in our legal system, who have condemned Ms Vercoe take a view that 15 and 16 year old school boys and school girls for that matter are blissfully naïve and innocent about the ways of the world. That might have been right thirty years ago, but not today.

As a society we allow our young people today to be exposed to a range of media and experiences that are highly sexualised. As a result, young people in western society have a greater grasp on sexual concepts and practices than at any previous time in history.

Ms Vercoe’s treatment says more about our hypocrisy and archaic morality than it does about her alleged misdemeanour.

This article was first published in The Mercury, Monday, September 26.