Students in the drama program at Santaluces High School wanted attention — just not this kind.
On his MySpace page, a current student wrote, "I have come to a realization. When you are standing in a place you love, and... to the right is a newspaper stand on the outside and Joseph Pulitzer's office on the inside, in front of you are 816 people standing and cheering for you, and you are surrounded by about 40 people you love, you can't get any closer to heaven without dieing."
The student was clearly referring to the Santaluces production of Newsies, a Disney musical about paperboys set at the turn of the 20th century. He probably couldn't have imagined that, months after the show, his own theater program would be the subject of real-life headlines. The school's drama teacher, 27-year-old Andrew Foster, is alleged to have had sex with at least two of his students and gotten one of them pregnant — possibly twice.
Police say Foster had sex with one 17-year-old student numerous times — perhaps daily, during the most torrid part of the affair — in his apartment and at various locations within the school itself.
Asked for thoughts on the matter, Foster's students' responses ranged from defensive to tight-lipped. One wrote in a message, "It would be great if the media would leave the affected students out of everything."
Another was less polite: "You're an asshole... get a real fucking life and stay out of it. Its over you piece of shit."
With due respect to those students, staying out of it hasn't been an option for a lot of people. Because Foster was a public school teacher entrusted with the care of hundreds of students, his case affected parents, taxpayers, and multiple government agencies. The School Board had to scramble to defend its hiring of Foster; U.S. marshals were called in to chase him during a two-week-long manhunt; the State Attorney's Office Crimes Against Children division suddenly had another case on top of its workload.
"We all wish these kinds of things wouldn't happen," says Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a group that represents teachers, "but we ought to know about and learn from them, to see the implications that can come from this. I understand the concern to make sure that students aren't further victimized. But an open society is sometimes a little bit messy."
Salaciousness aside, the scandal, like other student-teacher affairs, raises legitimate questions about school board policies, the fairness of laws related to minors, and the ever-tricky issue of teenage sexuality.
Foster's case is particularly intriguing because of the fierceness with which his students supported him. One teenage girl tipped Foster off to the police investigation, thus incurring criminal charges herself. Recently, a judge revoked Foster's visitation and letter-writing privileges because investigators say he maintains a "cult-like" control over his students, even from his jail cell.
Were members of the tightly knit drama group really naïve kids, brainwashed into enabling a sexual predator? Or rather, were they idealistic young people, united by an intense and extraordinary friendship?
Either way, they've been learning some very adult lessons — like how to deal with law enforcement officers and the media. As their own words show, many of Foster's students thought of him as a funny guy, a cool teacher, an amazing mentor. To some students, apparently, he was a lover. At least two named him their "personal hero."
To police, that sort of devotion is dangerous.
In the world of Dr. Seuss, trees are pink and orange, good always triumphs over evil, and everything seems impossibly alive. A happy ragtime melody bangs out from a piano while the Grinch dances across the stage. Thing One and Thing Two skip around each other. A menagerie of creatures, glittery and furry, slap hands, high-step, and take their bows. The exhilaration level runs high. Santaluces High School's production of Seussical: the Musical was enough to give a viewer goose bumps.
In a video of the show, the spotlight shines on the boy in the Cat in the Hat suit. Breathlessly, he thanks a litany of supporters, lastly "the master of all the magic, our director Andrew Foster." The actors chant, "Fos-ter! Fos-ter!" The teacher climbs onto the stage in his suit and tie and accepts a bundle of flowers. The costumed cast swamps him in a giant hug, like an amoeba ingesting its dinner. The hug must be fifty kids deep.
"The reason I looked up to Foster so much was because he was living the dream," one of his former drama pupils says. "I wanted to be like him. He was always so much fun to be around, and he always gave everyone a chance." Foster awarded this particular student an important part in a school production: "Something I will always be grateful for."
In a letter to Foster, released later as part of the State Attorney's file, one student wrote, "You always believed in me, which is something not even my mom has done. Sometimes I can still see doubt in her eyes." But Foster "always made me feel I belonged." Drama provided "the family I never had."
According to police reports, the drama group was so tightly knit that numerous students preferred to stay at school rather than come home in the afternoons. One mom, Marcie Tannous, thought "something might be going on with Foster and her son," so she started volunteering to keep an eye on things. Soon enough, she adored the teacher as much as the kids did. She learned to sew so she could make costumes.
In retrospect, it would be easy to find symbolism in the school's drama productions. The theater department staged Fame, about starry-eyed kids at a performing arts high school. The students put on Peter Pan, about a boy who never grew up and spent all his time with the Lost Boys.
Although Foster supervised hundreds of students, there were apparently a dozen or so with whom he was especially close.
Some of these students belong to MySpace groups called "Acting Cheifs" [sic] (the Santaluces mascot is a chief) and "Santaluces HS Drama Elite." One student's MySpace page has photos of the group, piled on top of one another in a giant cuddle puddle. "We pile up a lot!" a friend comments. Police say Foster forbade them from dating one another, though.
Two former students, now college freshmen, were featured in the Palm Beach Post when they graduated. Each girl chose Foster as her "personal hero." One would later write to Foster in jail, "I just feel like there is so much love that a few of us have shown for each other that is just almost abnormal in everyday life. To have this realization of who our real friends are and to see how much we truly are there and care for each other. Everyone is here for and striving for everyone else. I think that's ridiculously awesome."
The students took trips with Foster to the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and Orlando. A student who joined one of the adventures said the trips were not school-sanctioned but that parents knew about them. Sometimes, a parent came along. The group would split hotel rooms between boys and girls. They did "normal vacation things": canoeing, swimming, caving, shopping. "It didn't seem like anything [illicit] went on," the student says.
Foster seemed to treat the teenagers as his peers. He sometimes crashed at their houses and loaned them his car. If he had friends his own age, there is little evidence of them in court documents. (His parents and other adults who knew him either could not be located or declined to contribute to this story.)
Students came to cheer Foster on at his softball games at John Prince Park, where he played on a team called the Whack-Its. Sometimes they'd ride in Foster's 2002 gold Pontiac Grand Am.
And sometimes they hung out at Foster's apartment with no other adults around.
At Goshen College, in Goshen, Indiana, Andrew Foster played baseball, sang in the choir, and took classes in biblical literature and youth ministry. He spent a semester abroad in the Dominican Republic and worked for a local parks department before landing a teaching job at Washington High School in South Bend.
He seemed exactly the sort of upstanding and well-rounded person the Palm Beach County School Board wanted to recruit. In 2004, Foster headed south to accept a position as the drama teacher at Santaluces, where he would eventually earn $33,494 a year.
Documents released by the State Attorney's Office include notes between Foster and the girl he allegedly impregnated, identified in court documents only by her initials, D.N. The girl's diary is also part of the evidence, as are letters sent to and from Foster from jail. Depending on one's interpretation, the documents either highlight Foster's warm and caring personality, or they show how a sexual abuser operates.
The writings chronicle an up-and-down relationship that, according to D.N.'s diary, started on June 6, 2006, when Foster gave her some driving lessons. The two ended up walking on the beach and skipping rocks on the water.
On June 27, she wrote, "I had my first kiss today!" followed by a smiley face. The day concluded with a "3 hr. makeout session." The danger of it , she wrote, turned her on. "I just pray that it won't go farther and that we can control ourselves. Please Lord be with me on this and help me because I truly am happy!"
One day, D.N. wrote, Foster "asked me to be his girlfriend." She noted "age is just a number" but also acknowledged being "scared for all he and I are risking."
A note from Foster begins with the headline, "READ THEN BURN!!": "Please know you are so much more than the 'stupid girl' you think you might be," he wrote. "This is for real and you are an incredible person." According to the documents, Foster said he would try not to curse in D.N.'s presence. One time he came over to watch the movie 13 Going on 30. D.N. liked his muscles, his tattoos, and his funny eyebrow.
When talk apparently turned to sex, Foster wrote in a note, "I very much grew up in an unhealthy environment without much guidance. Again, not that those are excuses for wrong decisions but in a time when everyone's 'doing it,' it seemed like the thing to do. I unfortunately got acquainted with all this at an early age and had nobody telling me I was wrong." He continues, "I want your 1sts to be my firsts and I am excited about renewing all my 1sts with you as we begin to make all of these things our lasts and only. You are my one and only and you will continue to be until my last breath. I love you!!"
By August 20, 2006, D.N. was writing that she was "in love." The couple first "made love" on September 10, she says, but nine days later, D.N. was crying because "he made me feel so horrible. I will never be his #1, ever. Work will always come before family or even me."
Over the next year, D.N. later told police, she had sexual liaisons with Foster in his apartment, in school bathrooms, and on the catwalk in the auditorium. They had sex "almost every day" despite the emotional turmoil. One day, D.N. exclaimed, "I love him!" Another, she wrote, "I feel sad, I feel hurt, I feel alone, and I feel used."
By February of 2007, documents show, D.N. was suspicious about Foster's closeness with another girl. She told Foster of a pregnancy scare. She shared "the feeling that I could be cheated on and no, nothing — he just laughed and said 'Cheated on? We're not even together.'"
Late that month, she wrote, "I miscarried, That has to be it. I looked it up on the computer... Is it a blessing?? I'm not even 18 and I've already lost a child?"
D.N. told police that she found out she was pregnant for sure in June, the day before the drama group took a trip to the Keys. While in Islamorada, she looked at Foster's phone to discover text messages he'd sent to another female student. D.N. confronted Foster and told him of her pregnancy.
Florida law requires minors under the age of 18 to obtain parental consent when seeking an abortion. However, on July 6, D.N. went before a judge in juvenile court to request that parental notification be waived.
According to police, "on July 7, Foster drove her to the clinic and she had an abortion." Foster signed paperwork and paid $300 of the fee. D.N. paid the other $100.
Police say D.N. kept her relationship with Foster secret until Labor Day weekend, when she revealed details of the affair to her close friend, fellow drama student Perpetua Michel, who in turn urged D.N. to tell her mother, who then called police.
Detective Vinny Mintus headed to D.N.'s home. He was surprised to find an audience. About eight other drama kids, including Michel, had come to the house. Mintus decided to set up a controlled phone call between D.N. and Foster — but while the two were speaking, Michel left the room and texted Foster, warning him that police were setting a trap. The line went dead.
Michel would later plead guilty to a charge of resisting an officer without violence. She described Foster as her best friend.
Foster never showed up for work again, and he was considered to have voluntarily resigned from his position. Police spent the next two weeks looking for him. They seized his Grand Am and searched his apartment. They took his bedsheets into evidence.
There are no smiley faces or mushy descriptions in the language of cops and courts. To investigators and prosecutors, Foster's two students are "victims." Foster is "the defendant." What happened between them was abuse.
Police interviewed "Victim #2" (the girl whose text messages from Foster D.N. had discovered), who said she'd had sex with Foster two times at his apartment and, like D.N., received sexual texts and images from Foster on a cell phone.
Meanwhile, U.S. marshals used phone records to track Foster's whereabouts. They indicated he had traveled to Indiana and back to Florida. On September 20, he surrendered to the Fugitive Task Force at a motel in Immokalee. He had two pictures of "Victim #2" in his suitcase.
Foster's lawyer, Mark Solomon, said, "It's been a tragedy for everyone involved. Andrew Foster was a special teacher who perhaps cared too much, and because of that, now he's in the position where he's at. Once you put yourself out there and become a public figure, you're subject to accusations whether true or false."
Two criminal cases were opened against Foster, one for each victim. He was charged with multiple counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and transmission of pornography by electronic device. He was later charged with witness tampering as well. If Foster were to receive the maximum sentence for each of these charges, his lawyer says, he would face more than 200 years in prison.
Seattle schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau became the poster woman for illicit school sex affairs in 1997, when she was 34 and arrested for abusing her then-12-year-old student. Although it may seem that such incidents have been popping up nonstop ever since, the actual number is hard to quantify. An Associated Press investigation released in October found that, around the country between 2001 and 2005, states took action against the licenses of 2,570 teachers following allegations of sexual abuse. There are more than 3 million public school teachers nationwide.
Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association says, "The legal standard we keep repeating is 'innocent until proven guilty.' But once the mug shots go up or the report is on TV, it's really difficult for people to overcome.
There are 180,000 teachers in Florida," Pudlow says. "It's an incredible minority of teachers who get involved in anything like this."
Then again, the Associated Press investigation found that only one in ten victims of teacher-student abuse actually report it.
Patterns emerged in the AP study: accused teachers were often popular. The teacher often seemed more comfortable around young people than adults. The sexual relationships often began with the teacher complimenting students.
Of cases that end in convictions, punishment varies tremendously, from probation to long prison sentences. Although some offenses are punishable by life (like federal charges of crossing state lines to have sex with a minor), teachers are rarely sentenced so harshly. Locally, when Josephus Eggelletion — now Broward County commissioner — was found to have fathered a child by his then-14-year-old student, he wasn't even required to pay child support.
Long-term effects on both accusers and the accused have varied greatly as well. Some cases have led to suicide and depression; others, to marriage. Letourneau had two children by her former student and wed him in 2005 after serving more than seven years in prison.
Alumni who graduated from Santaluces in 1991 remember gossip that then-biology teacher Rick Aiello divorced his wife (the school's physics teacher) and began dating a former student. The couple may have figured out how to successfully navigate teacher-student attraction: He was not accused of criminal activity, and the couple is now married with four children. (Aiello did not respond to a request for comment.)
Palm Beach County School Board spokesperson Nat Harrington says "what happens in schools is a reflection of what happens in society. The School District is under scrutiny — and because we have people's children here, we should be." Regardless of the numbers, Harrington says, "this kind of heinous behavior and sexual immorality is appalling." He had little concern that accusations might drive some male teachers away from the profession: "There are lots of male teachers who do not cross the line."
Right now, Harrington is calling the Foster case "a huge wake-up call." In some similar cases, however, victims' families have filed civil lawsuits against school boards, citing negligence. Settlements or adverse judgments can cost districts big bucks; those expenses, and legal fees, all trickle down, and taxpayers eventually foot the bill. While sources say there is currently no indication that Foster's ex-students plan to sue, the School Board has had to fend off accusations that it did not screen Foster properly at hiring, and that it ignored warning signs. Prior rumors of Foster's inappropriate contact with students all proved unsubstantiated.
After Foster's arrest, police did find one former student who said Foster once kissed her in a janitor's closet. Mintus also received a call from an Indiana woman who claimed Foster had once touched her inappropriately. Since incident reports had not been filed to support those allegations, Harrington says, the School Board could not have foreseen future problems. "If anyone can predict behavior of another human being we would like to know," he says. "We'd be instant billionaires."
What about a policy that would prevent a teacher from being alone with a student, or prevent him from having kids hang out at his bachelor pad? Not possible, Harrington says, because numerous legitimate situations take place outside of class: "band, athletics, field trips — most are completely above board." He said that teachers are held to ethical behavior by signing a code of conduct.
Some observers feel that D.N.'s case is particularly traumatic, because the teenager had to deal with the consequences of an unintended pregnancy. Assuming that she came up through the Palm Beach County school system, would D.N. have had exposure to sex education classes? "Yes," said Harrington. "We teach an abstinence-based curriculum. It stresses abstinence — and gives some information on contraception."
A close look at the "human development" curriculum reveals that, in line with a 1990 Florida law, it teaches "abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard of all school-age children." One handout says that "girls... are expected to abstain from sexual relations until marriage at 21 or 22." The curriculum includes statistics from the 1980s — before today's high school seniors were even born. As an indication of the course's up-to-date applicability, it calls for students to watch a movie about teenage sexuality — on laser disc.
Santaluces looks more like a prison than a school. The cream-colored one-story building, built in the mid-1980s, has just a few small windows. A chain link fence surrounds the entire treeless campus. Just before dismissal on a Friday afternoon, idling yellow buses spew exhaust into the steamy air. Deans patrol the grounds in golf carts, cradling walkie-talkies like weapons.
The name suggests it might be a Catholic school, but Santaluces is actually named after an indigenous tribe that inhabited South Florida circa 1600. Students here come from working class homes. About 50 percent of them are white. The football team makes the papers. The band is a big deal. A new performing arts center was recently built, but overall, it's a C-rated school.
With the ring of the bell, students spill outdoors. Plenty of them have had Foster as their teacher. Of ten or so who wanted to comment, every one seemed to feel that the blame for the incident should be shared by both teacher and student.
"I feel bad for that teacher," said one boy. "A guy being put in that situation." He says girls vied for Foster's attention — and they were all pretty.
"Yeah, [D.N.] was really pretty," says a girl who knew her.
Some felt D.N. should not have gone to the cops. To them, the law is what's messed up.
"It's not like he raped her," piped up a girl who had Foster as her teacher.
Another said D.N. should have expected sex when she made a conscious decision to date Foster. "He's a man! Twelve-year-olds are having sex!"
Another student offered bluntly: "I liked [Foster]! It's the girl's fault, too. First of all, they're both stupid. Second, he should not be in jail."
One drama student sent a thoughtful email: "None of the girls in drama, NONE, were stupid. These girls are smart. They know what they're doing. They know the consequences of their actions. As for them being 'in love,' so be it. You don't choose who you fall in love with."
The student dismissed descriptions of Foster as a "pervert." "I want people to know that he isn't 'sick,'" the student said. "These girls weren't brainwashed. I think everyone knew exactly what they were doing and what the outcome could possibly be. He's the authoritative figure and he should have known that he couldn't do it. But it's not like they were at a fragile age like 13 or 14; they were 17 years old."
The students' comments raise the questions: Are age-of-consent laws fair? Realistic? Should one person take the fall, even if the sex was consensual?
According to Florida statutes, "a person 24 years of age or older who engages in sexual activity with a person 16 or 17 years of age commits a felony of the second degree." Also according to Florida law, a "child" is defined as anyone less than 18 years old. Children do not have the right to consent to sexual acts. Federal law, by contrast, recognizes the age of consent as 16.
A web-based organization called Moral Outrage.com maintains data on statutory rape laws across the country. Spokesperson Laurie Peterson says the sex between Foster would have been legal if Foster were under 24, and D.N. over 18. "The crime is based solely on age difference." One Florida statute specifically covers sexual battery committed by "a person in familial or custodial authority to a person less than 18."
Peterson says that she, at age 15, had a consensual experience with a man. Seeking an adult's guidance, she told her health teacher, unaware that the teacher was obligated by law to report the incident to police. Soon enough, two uniformed men were asking Peterson detailed questions about her genitals. "I felt more traumatized by having to tell police every single step of my act [than by the act itself]," she says now. Intimidated, she did not realize that she could have refused to give a statement.
Peterson points out that states can continue to prosecute cases even if victims request that charges be dropped, and that convicted persons may have to live as registered sex offenders the rest of their lives. "Nobody can back out once it's been reported," she warns.
"We just want others to understand the law — and the consequences of that law."
What about understanding the consequences of the abuse? A law enforcement source says students may only realize the impact of the case ten or 20 years from now, when they can compare it with more adult experiences or perhaps when they become parents themselves. Foster, cops say, is an "actor." He was allegedly having sex with "children." So they don't feel bad about breaking up anyone's social clique, and they don't mind playing bad guy.
Experts say that many sex crimes go unreported because victims feel guilty or ashamed. They may be reluctant to release evidence or testify in court. Media exposure is another deterrent; being shunned by one's peers, yet another. Sexual abuse can result in a host of psychological problems, from post-traumatic stress disorder, to trouble with intimacy, to substance abuse. Ditto for females who've had abortions. In light of all this, some see D.N. as an incredibly brave young woman, one who could use a few defenders in her corner.
But investigators worry about the psychological effects on the rest of the drama kids, too. In October, police say, Foster was passing messages through a former student named Ricky Saturnini. Police say that Foster, through Saturnini, offered to pay D.N. to stop cooperating with police. Saturnini argued that he never took that idea seriously, but Foster was charged with witness tampering anyway. He was banned from writing letters or having visitors (besides his parents and lawyer) because communication could impede the truthfulness of students' future testimony.
After reading some of the letters sent to and from Foster in jail, Detective Mintus wrote a report calling Foster "manipulating and controlling." As Mintus put it, "Mr. Foster continuously maintains a control over these individuals in both their academic and personal lives." Foster's actions, he said, "created a potentially dangerous situation which could ultimately lead to devastating results similar to those that have occurred in cult-like situations."
Was it extreme for Mintus to liken the group to a cult? Again, that depends upon one's point of view. Excerpts from more recent letters — none from D.N. or "Victim #2" — suggest that Foster's romantic interests may have extended well beyond the two "victims" and that he continues to harbor hopes of reuniting with former students after he gets out of jail.
On October 8, a girl wrote: "I know we will return stronger than ever... Just the thought of us all being together a family once again, is what keeps me strong. I don't need anything else in life."
On October 12, Foster sent a letter to a different girl: "Being home next summer looks more and more unrealistic. But yeah, I think I talk about you guys coming up or hell, everybody coming up, getting summer jobs and living together."
From another girl, who is still at Santaluces: "[Name redacted] and I got into a conversation about your letters. Hearing you writing to her that you still think about you guys being together and are sad that you might have ruined it hurts. PLEASE DON'T LIE TO ME... I don't want you to feel you have to make empty promises to make me happy."
One of the college freshmen who had called Foster her "hero" and is now a legal adult wrote, "I guess I just thought that us talking about the future kind of meant that other things were over. I didn't realize that things were flooding in during whatever prospective time we had together."
In a subsequent letter, she wrote: "I can't help but kind of feel that you're hinting at the idea of us." She adds: "I know we didn't have much time together to really solidify anything, but I feel that now isn't the time to be suggesting things like that. ... I have to admit to you that it makes me a little uncomfortable... I don't agree with how things have been handled in their entirety, mainly the whole involving the law thing, but even if you did entrust someone with your life and they betrayed that trust, there still remains that what has happened is wrong."
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She mentions that she has been wearing high heels more often.
Foster wrote back: "My intention was never to hurt you or her, that relationship ending was a trainwreck and I really wanted to move on. I meant everything I had ever said to you. Spending time made me feel more alive than I had been in years. (In my personal life, of course). Cause I loved my job. And let me address the blatant forward talk I have made in other letters... I guess its my way of saying that I really think the world of you and the thought of being lucky enough to be with somebody like you would be a dream."
He goes on to say, "I definitely agree with you about our friends, I can't see my life without them. I just can't. Please rest assured that nothing I have ever done has been fake. My feelings for you, our friends, and our successes was always genuine. Please don't ever question that."
He could not resist adding: "Oh, and I bet you look great in heels. You with straightened hair and heels would be quite ravishing. Good luck finding the man of your dreams."