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."