She was in the lunch line when she felt the teacher’s touch.
What was he doing, she wondered, as the burly educator ran his broad hands over her shoulders and began to rub.
The sophomore at Coughlin High School didn’t have him as a teacher, but had started noticing him in the halls as she walked to class. He didn’t talk to her at first — he just gazed, his arms folded in front of him. Later, he’d offer a hello, ask her about her weekend, or remark about how good she looked.
As the weeks went on, he turned up more often. He’d wait for her as lunch let out. He’d ask to walk her to class. Then, she noticed, he’d be inside the cafeteria watching her. Until his hands touched her, his behavior was intriguing. The older man’s interest was flattering. But his gesture in the lunch line was something different, she thought.
This was physical.
Then, mid-rub, Stephen Stahl leaned in and whispered in her ear.
“He told me, ‘You look like you need a massage in the front,’” she recalled.
He was a teacher. An adult. He couldn’t have meant it like that, she thought, the disbelief still apparent on her face more than a decade later as she remembered breaking down the incident in her teenage mind and piecing it back together in hopes of understanding it.
Now 28, the woman, with her mother at her side, detailed to the Times Leader the first steps of a weeks-long “grooming” process and how it culminated in a controlling relationship, classroom sex, a criminal conviction, and a struggle with shame and self-worth that made her question whether her life was worth the cost of coming forward.
At the time, in 2004, she said it didn’t click that Stahl, then 37 and in between marriages, had more in mind than a massage.
“I was extremely naive,” said the victim, whom the Times Leader is not identifying due to her age (16) at the time of the relationship. “I never had anybody purposely do anything bad to me, so I had no reason to believe that somebody who I’m supposed to trust in a safe setting at school would be planning something to hurt me. I never had that in my mind.”
Stahl and Edward F. Bezdecki, Stahl’s attorney in an ongoing civil suit against the Wilkes-Barre Area School District over the teacher’s firing in March 2015, did not return multiple messages seeking comment for this story.
The scandal involving the ex-Coughlin shop teacher and wrestling coach — one that later would ensnare his boss — is among eight sexual misconduct cases involving Luzerne County educators or coaches since 2012. Half of those cases came in 2016, a year that saw as many educators and coaches charged as in the previous four years combined.
Stahl’s victim started the legal process years later when she went to police, whose investigation into her claims resulted in a corruption of minors conviction for Stahl and spurred multiple arrests at Coughlin. She was motivated, she said, by guilt, and by thoughts that another generation of female students at the school might be subjected to the same abuse.
It didn’t take long for her to question coming forward, though, as the case’s sordid details put her in the spotlight and exposed her to an onslaught of attacks on her character.
‘I felt like I couldn’t go on’
The date took on new meaning in 2014.
For the previous decade, March 19 had made her cringe because it marked the anniversary of the first time she and Stahl had sex. The intercourse came in 2004 in a basement classroom at Coughlin “a few months” after their first sexual encounter, which took place in Stahl’s classroom closet not long after she told him she was confused and concerned about what he whispered to her in the lunch line.
She said she told Stahl she didn’t understand what his massage remark meant. Was he serious?
“He said, ‘Come to my room eighth period on Friday and you’ll find out,” she said, adding that she knew Stahl didn’t have a class at that time. The two began a physical relationship that lasted a few months but stopped short of intercourse, she said.
When she saw the relationship was heading toward intercourse, she agonized over what to do. She was 16 now. The flippant exchanges between the two had lost their thrill. Instead, she said, she felt a heaviness bearing down on her. She tried making up an excuse to get out of having sex with Stahl, but said he wasn’t fazed when she told him she wasn’t on birth control.
So she showed up and found Stahl waiting alone inside a quiet classroom. He told her he loved her.
Then it happened.
“I did ask him not to when it actually turned to sex … but he just did it,” she said, struggling to fight back tears until the words poured out, then pausing to collect herself. “I, at 16, didn’t go home and think to myself, ‘He raped me.’ That’s just the way it was. He just did it.”
Stahl’s victim said she couldn’t be sure whether Stahl had a lookout stationed outside the classroom the first time they had sex, but was under the impression “his lookout was always looking out for him” during their encounters, some of which occurred during school hours inside the closet of Stahl’s classroom as their relationship progressed.
She now knows she should have told an adult about Stahl, but conceded she “wasn’t strong enough” a decade ago. She hadn’t found her strength in 2010, either, when she told her parents about the relationship but refused to share it with police.
March 19 remained a yearly reminder of the sex until New Year’s Eve in 2013, when the 25-year-old woman was on her way to the gym but instead headed to the Wilkes-Barre Police Department, located down the street from her former high school.
Three days later, Coughlin promoted Stahl to dean of students, but his tenure was short-lived. The school suspended him without pay as his criminal charges surfaced in early February 2014, and a little more than a month later, on the 10-year anniversary of their first sexual intercourse, his victim told a judge her story during a preliminary hearing. The anniversary no longer would mark a black day, she thought.
“There I was, staring him in the face 10 years later and saying, ‘This is what you did to me. You never thought I’d be here. You never thought I’d tell,’” she said, explaining that Stahl would make her vow out loud to keep their secret.
In deciding to come forward and testify, she said, she learned who her true friends were and how vicious strangers could be.
Her solace soon faded as dozens of people blasted her, saying it took her a decade to come forward because she was hard up for a payday. Some mobilized in internet comment threads with an onslaught of insults. Others used expletive-laced tirades to blame her, claiming she knew what she was getting into with Stahl. One publicized her personal information, including her name and where she worked.
Most people were even crueler.
“When something bad happens to you, it’s not usually something people are blaming you for,” she said. “It’s usually some kind of tragedy. But when it’s something that people are shaming you for and you already lived with all this shame and then you try to tell your secret to get rid of the pain and it just intensifies it, you question (coming forward), absolutely. ‘Why did I do this? What was this for?’”
The added abuse from the public — what experts call secondary victimizations — continued through Stahl’s criminal trial and into the case of his boss, former Coughlin principal Frank Michaels, who was convicted last year of child endangerment after prosecutors said he knew about Stahl’s relationship with the victim and did nothing.
The public’s vitriol even began to take a physical toll on her, the victim said, resulting in a three-day hospital stay for severe stomach pains.
“I felt like I couldn’t go on,” she said, indicating that the support of her family and the Luzerne County District Attorney’s office staved off thoughts of suicide.
The abuse didn’t fizzle out, she later learned, even after Stahl received a six- to 23-month prison sentence following his conviction in January 2015.
Stahl was locked up, but she was the one who felt imprisoned.
The trauma doesn’t always end when the handcuffs clank or the cell door slams shut.
For some student sexual abuse victims, one expert said, psychological damage can linger into adulthood, ingraining deep-seeded feelings of anger, distrust and worthlessness. The struggle renders some prone to toxic relationships in which verbal and physical abuse can run rampant.
Stahl’s victim said she was in one relationship not long after coming forward in which her boyfriend shamed her for her sexual encounters with the ex-teacher.
“I guess this is what love is,” she said she thought at the time, noting she’s since found a “very supportive” significant other.
Common in most sexual misconduct cases involving students and educators is the power differential, said Dr. Tony Farrenkopf, a clinical and forensic psychologist. The native of Germany operates an independent practice in Portland, Ore., but spent decades examining sexual abuse and the tendencies of sexual offenders.
Abusers exert their authority and misuse their power, he said, causing the victim to submit without truly consenting, due largely to fear of what they have to lose.
In Farrenkopf’s experience, sexual abuse victims typically are preyed on by those known best to them — siblings, parents, step-parents or their partners, he said. Outside of family, teachers and educators often have the most access.
“And access corrupts,” Farrenkopf said. “A gambler who has access to money, he’s going to gamble.”
Men and women also differ in their rationalizations of the abuse, he said. A male abuser might already have sexual desires for young girls or a history of acting out sexually. For them, it might be purely about the sex. Female abusers, however, often will convince themselves they’re part of a romance, most likely due to a sputtering marriage or an uneventful love life, he said.
In sexual abuse victims, Farrenkopf said, men tend to react by lashing out in anger while women turn their feelings inward, thinking they’re now “damaged goods.” Additionally, in young victims, the part of the brain responsible for high-level reasoning is yet to be fully formed, making the gravity of the situation difficult to grasp.
A female victim’s trauma also can be intensified due to social stigmas of promiscuity. Some don’t report the abuse at all because they feel they have more to lose in terms of shame, blame and being an outcast. Often when they do report, he said, they might not be believed and will be shamed even more.
Farrenkopf encourages sexual abuse victims receiving therapy to empower themselves, set their own boundaries and remove self-blame.
“Let them understand someone else did wrong,” he said. “They knew better and were in a position to know it was wrong, and maybe you didn’t know how wrong it was.”
‘I believed him’
Stahl’s victim considered herself gullible and naive.
“I was in a family where I didn’t see bad things happen,” she said. “I didn’t know someone could do this. So I was his perfect victim.”
After she and Stahl had sex the first time, the teacher began expecting it more often, she said. When they didn’t have sex every week, Stahl, whom she’d already seen riding his motorcycle around her development and staring down boys he believed she was interested in, grew even more obsessive. When she did what he wanted, she said, she had room to breathe.
“I was picking my battles in order to survive,” she said.
Meanwhile, Stahl was telling her how beautiful she was — “a knockout” — and how he never felt so strongly about anyone. He was giving her colleges to consider and talking about living together. He said he couldn’t wait to introduce her to his friends when she turned 18, she said. He showered her with gifts — purses, perfumes and muffins, some of which were doled out in front of other students.
The sex soon carried out of the classroom. Stahl picked her up and took her to two motels in Plains Township for sexual encounters, police said in arrest paperwork. The teen also drove to Stahl’s house in Hunlock Creek, she said, where he cooked her chicken scampi and served her wine.
“I thought, in a twisted way, he loved me,” she said. “I believed him.”
But the feeling didn’t last, and she broke things off with Stahl in early 2005, after the situation had become unbearable, she said. Their physical relationship was over and she was able to avoid Stahl until she graduated in 2006, though he continued to call her until nearly a year later.
“I realized I had some power in this,” she said.
After the 18-month relationship ended, Stahl faced legal troubles unrelated to the student, getting charged with drunken driving in York County in 2008 and pleading guilty in the case in 2009.
That year, he completed a three-month Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program following harassment charges from a fellow Coughlin teacher he’d been dating. When their relationship ended, he placed more than 100 calls to her in less than a month, some of them anonymous and hang-up calls, according to police. (Charges were expunged upon completion of the ARD program.)
Shortly after Stahl was convicted in the student sex case in 2015 — he wound up serving just over six months in prison — the Times Leader discovered that a Twitter account with the handle @CHSWrestleClub had posted several tweets that appeared to make disparaging remarks about the victim, including one referencing a “home wrecker” and another that read, “I hear girls from (the victim’s hometown) do it for muffins lol.” Some featured the hashtag #freestahl.
Stahl’s victim said she knew about the account and wanted it removed, but was encouraged to “let him dig his own grave.” The ex-teacher claimed the account belonged to someone else, but Twitter provided prosecutors with an email address used to start the account — the same one Stahl once used to file a Right-to-Know request to the Wilkes-Barre Area School District.
“Reading that about yourself,” she recalled, “your heart just sinks.”
‘Breaking all the rules’
Chaz Balogh saw the jump in sexual misconduct cases at schools last year.
As the man regularly tasked with getting to the bottom of accusations leveled against educators, the longtime investigator noted he saw more cases of student/educator sex abuse crimes reported to the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office in 2016 than in recent memory.
His boss agreed.
“We had a higher number of those cases last year than any other year I’ve been in office,” said Stefanie Salavantis, who was elected as Luzerne County’s district attorney in 2011 and now is in her second term. She said more people are willing to have the conversation about sexual misconduct in the classroom, leading to a spike in reported cases.
Salavantis said she understood why Stahl’s victim hesitated to report her case. It often takes longer for victims of sexual misconduct to come forward because they’re struggling to find the strength to stand up to their abusers and testify to their alleged crimes in court. But Salavantis said she saw the courage in Stahl’s victim right away.
From the first time they met, Salavantis said, she saw a woman who was a victim, but who wanted to be a voice for others who have gone through similar experiences. The two keep in touch to this day.
“I saw strength in her,” Salavantis said. “She just seemed to me to be someone who learned from this experience and gained strength.”
In addition to filing arrest paperwork and conducting the investigation, Balogh often is among the first to hear the educators’ explanations. Most, he said, admit their guilt and offer some semblance of regret, however ingenuine it may be.
“I couldn’t say whether it was remorse for being caught or being sorry, because you hear that all the time,” he said. “It’s no different with these kind of people, except these are the people we’re entrusting our kids with.”
In many of the cases, Balogh said, technology opened the door. Texting and the exchange of messages on social media between educators and students became “acceptable” and led to contact often unmonitored by the school. Balogh cited several cases in which sexually charged exchanges discovered by parents sparked a criminal investigation.
One garnered international attention and to this day still stands out to Balogh.
“Lauren Harrington-Cooper always sticks out,” he said. “She put herself in a situation where she was arrested numerous times instead of being upfront and admitting to additional victims. She sort of put that (media attention) on herself.”
The Wyoming Valley West High School English teacher’s initial affair with an 18-year-old male student was discovered after the teen’s parents stumbled onto inappropriate exchanges between the two in 2013 on an Internet messaging site.
Authorities that year charged Harrington-Cooper, then 31, with institutional sexual assault, alleging she engaged in both oral sex and sexual intercourse with the teen. She was arrested twice more while free on bail as three other students came forward with allegations about their own sexual encounters with the teacher, who later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine to 23 months in the Luzerne County prison. (Pennsylvania law allows for charges of institutional sexual assault when a student is legally an adult.)
Harrington-Cooper’s case troubled Balogh on several fronts, he said, particularly because some downplayed the charges because the victims were males or were somehow willing to participate. All victims suffer in sex abuse cases, regardless of their gender or inclinations, he said.
“For educators, in most of these cases, the victims are willing participants,” Balogh said. “However, because of their age and because (the victims) are students, they’re under their perpetrators’ control and trust. Then you’re breaking all the rules.”
‘A black mark’
The halls of Pittston Area Senior High School were a different place in 1972.
Then, Sal Licata was part of a new generation of teachers, a group he said earned some flak from old-school educators for their long hair and beards, but nonetheless held true the line between educator and student. It was a “wall” Licata said was never crossed.
That changed in the years leading up to his retirement in 2007. By then, the wall had started to crumble.
“Back in those days, students were students and teachers were teachers,” said Licata, 66. “Unfortunately, I noticed in the last 10 years (of his career) that this wall that had always been there between the two started collapsing.”
An influx of young teachers came in, and students started becoming more familiar with them, he said. All of a sudden, it wasn’t unusual for a teacher and student to share a hug after a student aced an exam, made the team or got accepted into a college of choice, he said.
“Students started viewing teachers not as teachers, but as their friend, and some teachers started looking at students the same way,” he said.
Nancy Violi, a veteran Luzerne County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the Stahl case, said student/teacher sexual misconduct cases likely have been happening for years, but people have become less afraid to come forward and stand up to their abusers.
Most of those cases, she said, boil down to an adult taking advantage of a minor.
“To put a high school student on a level playing field with a teacher is ridiculous,” she said. “They know better. They’re an adult.”
Licata said he longs for the time when the lines weren’t crossed, a period that evaporated as more and more teachers began turning up in the news accused of sexual contact with students, including Licata’s former colleague — ex-math teacher and girls basketball/softball coach Colleen McGarry.
The longtime educator and one-time department chair at Pittston Area said he was floored when he heard about McGarry’s alleged affair with a 17-year-old female student last year. McGarry allegedly was seen taking the teen girl to local restaurants.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Licata said. “I know Colleen. I would have never — never — thought that would happen, but again, somewhere, somehow, whether it was (through) athletics or because she was a coach or (through) other acts, that wall disappeared.”
In her interviews with Balogh and other investigators, McGarry referred to the current landscape between teachers and students as a “strange time” due to the prevalence of technology and said she didn’t think “it was much of a big deal to be taking out a kid,” according to an affidavit.
Such arrests put “a black mark” on the profession, Licata said, because they betray the public’s trust in educators, harm the victim’s emotional-well being, and likely ruin the accused’s career.
“You wonder how they could be that stupid,” he said.
Stahl’s victim said she wished she had died accidentally.
That way, she said, those strangers and fair-weather friends who routinely scorned her wouldn’t be able to say she took the coward’s way out. She didn’t describe her mindset after coming forward as “suicidal,” but said she felt so buried beneath her shame that she didn’t want to go on.
At the time, she placed “no value” on her life, she said.
Now a college graduate pursuing her master’s degree, she credits her best friends, her parents and older sister, and the Victims Resource Center in Wilkes-Barre, for being her support system when everything else seemed bleak. They told her they were proud of her. She was doing the right thing. They sent her encouraging messages.
Support saved her life, she said.
“If I didn’t (have that), I would not be here right now,” she said.
When she sees educators or coaches in handcuffs, she said she thinks of the victims and what she’d tell them. She thinks about what they’re going through and the courage it took to come forward, and the strength she struggled to find within herself.
“I want to give them a huge hug,” she said. “I want to tell them, ‘Let’s go talk about what happened to us and the fact that it’s not our fault, and you were brave enough to do the right thing, and I don’t care if it was 12 years or 10 years later. You are helping other people.’
“It’s never too late to tell the truth,” she said.
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL