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Opinion: How Giovanna Yaranga's Case Is Like a Tribunal 

Poli Psy

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Let us assume — though Giovanna Yaranga has pled not guilty to four felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor — that the 44-year-old Burlington High School Spanish teacher did have sex with her 17-year-old student, a boy police records identify by his initials. To protect his privacy, we'll call him X.Y.

Let us also concede that the word used to describe intimacies of which someone disapproves — inappropriate — is apt in this case. It is inappropriate for a teacher to frig a student, a breach of professional ethics and maybe a firing offense. The Burlington School District dismissed Yaranga last week, but she has written in appealing the decision, at least “until the truth comes to light.”

But is this behavior felonious in any but the legal sense? If convicted, does Yaranga deserve 20 years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender?

No, it is not. No, she does not.

Are the Burlington High students at risk of predation, as Principal Amy Mellencamp and Superintendent Jeanne Collins suggest in their letter to parents? Twice they invoke “the safety of our students.”

No. The students are as safe today as they were the day before Yaranga and X.Y. shared their first kiss.

Is the “entire community” (per Mellencamp and Collins) traumatized? The letter offers (twice) the services of school guidance counselors for kids and parents stumbling through this “confusing,” “deeply upsetting,” “troubling” and “difficult” time.

If anyone is traumatized, it’s Mellencamp. The school district has hired a private detective to investigate what happened, including what the principal knew and when she knew it, and whether she failed to report suspicion of child abuse to the state.

Most important, is X.Y. a victim of sexual exploitation?

No, he is not, except, again, in the legal sense. Yaranga was an authority figure. That is why this sex is a felony, even though the “victim” is older than the age of consent, 16. But there is no indication that she used him against his will — a real-life definition of exploitation.

Did X.Y. consent? Statute denies him that capacity. But he is not a child, and everything he has said indicates that he loved Yaranga and wanted to make love with her. What harm would have come to him? Probably little more than a bruised heart.

Until now. He is a victim now — of the law enforcement and child protective systems.

We know this story by heart. A respected adult has sex with an older teen. The community “reels.” Souls are searched. Emergency meetings are held; policies are reviewed. Endless reenactment of this ritual confers on its logic a consensus of truth. Inappropriate is harmful and immoral. Immoral is criminal.

The case of Giovanna Yaranga is like an inquisitional tribunal: zealously joined, prurient, sanctimonious and punitive — of the “victim.”

First, an inquisition requires popular participation. This one has it. “Unnamed persons” had gone to Mellencamp “concerned” about the relationship between Yaranga and X.Y., according to a police deposition. After the teacher’s indictment, a businessperson overheard her on the phone with X.Y. and reported the incident to her boss, who reported it to the police. In violation of a court order prohibiting her contact with X.Y., Yaranga was arrested again.

In their letter and a school meeting, Mellencamp and Collins exhorted students and parents to “share” information about this or other unsavory-looking friendships at school. Administrators and counselors will spend the summer working out ways to encourage kids to rat more readily on their peers and faculty.

Like those of the Inquisitions, police records in the case have the rhythms of religious confession, and also of pornography.

Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations Detective Corporal Peter Chapman describes his first encounter with the boy: “I asked X.Y. if he had engaged in sex relations with Giovanna Yaranga, he said he did not. I noted however that when X.Y. made the denial he did not make eye contact with me and from my training and experience I believed X.Y. was being less than truthful with me.”

Later, Chapman and Department for Children and Families investigator Linda Stone wrested the details from the teen: “X.Y. told us that he and Giovanna Yaranga began to have sexual intercourse in October or November of 2012,” Chapman’s deposition reads. “X.Y. told us that the first time they had sexual intercourse it was in Giovanna Yaranga’s Honda SUV. X.Y. told us he had sexual intercourse with Giovanna Yaranga approximately 10 times. I asked X.Y. to tell us where he had sex with Giovanna Yaranga. X.Y. told us that he and Giovanna Yaranga had sexual intercourse at his residence in the morning after his parents had left for work but before he went to school … in vehicles while parked at various locations in the greater Burlington area … and once or twice in area Hotels [sic].”

X.Y. did not just volunteer the above. Extracting the truth requires a little cajoling, a little threatening. Chapman and Stone chatted up the boy about school, sports and friends. They showed him they were on his side.

Then they got down to business. There are “consequences” for lying, they informed him, not specifying what those consequences might be. They reassured him that he was not at fault. Nevertheless, they implied that he had done something very wrong. The law, they explained, upholds “the sacred nature of the student-teacher relationship,” according to the same deposition.

Now the boy had a choice: perjure himself or send his lover to prison. Be a liar or a betrayer, possibly an apostate. He may not be at fault, but he is guilty. And he is being punished.

During the Catholic Church’s Inquisitions, which lasted on and off from the 1300s until about 1800, thousands denounced their neighbors, shopkeepers and priests for heresy, witchcraft and sexual deviance. Once accused, people were imprisoned, sometimes for decades before a ruling was made. Even if they confessed, they were tortured for further confession. Hoping to satisfy their tormenters, and unaware whether fresh accusations were being made, they offered escalating confessions. “I never took great liberties with her but touched her a few times,” Father Felix Coll, a Cardona priest, wrote in 1697 of his “solicitation” of a parishioner. By 1698, still behind bars, he was admitting to kisses and caresses of face and bosom, occurring “70 times or thereabout.”

If the torture didn’t kill the prisoner, he or she might be banished, eviscerated or burned at the stake. Proceedings against the priest continued for years, until they were “suspended by his death.”

But what of the accusers? They came forward to preempt their own denunciation, for even to hear a blasphemous comment and repeat it — say, a 14th-century French peasant’s joke about the heavenly host being like a huge pastry — was to commit heresy. To engage in sinful sex, even if coerced, was to sin.

Thus, to accuse was to confess. Like the accused, the accusers fell before the holy officers and begged for exoneration. The strategy did not always work.

Some things have improved. Instead of the presbyter, today we have the child protection agent. We do not employ the strappado to extract confession. But we may imprison nonviolent sexual transgressors until death. Thanks to a politically incited fever of sex-law toughening in 2005, under Chapter 72, Title 13, Section 3271 of Vermont statute, crimes like Yaranga’s may carry an indeterminate life sentence.

We still legislate private morality and mobilize religious shame to enforce the law. This is effective, since, God knows, we are all sinners.

Before Chapman and Stone, X.Y. wept. He cried that he had let his parents and friends down. And when he raised his hand to swear his testimony was true, he felt compelled to unburden himself further: “He also wanted to admit that he had consumed alcoholic beverages while in Peru,” writes his inquisitor. “I thanked X.Y. for his honesty.”

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Bio:
Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. Her column, "Poli Psy," appears biweekly in Seven Days.

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