In a Fresno courtroom Wednesday, Kerman High School teacher Maria Angelica Vega, dressed in a business suit, stood before a judge to answer felony charges of having unlawful sex with a 17-year-old student.
Cases like hers get a lot of attention, but they are not uncommon: Nearly 10% of U.S. public school students have been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by school employees, according to a U.S. Department of Education study that is considered authoritative on the issue.
Teacher, coaches, substitute teachers and bus drivers, in that order, are at the top of the offender list, the study showed. The mistreatment of students ranged from sexual comments to rape.
In the past four years, two other female teachers from the Valley have been arrested for having sex with students. Both pleaded no contest to the charges and were spared prison sentences.
In the same period, four male teachers were arrested. Two of them were convicted and one accepted a plea deal to avoid prison.
A trial is pending for the fourth.
But convicting 34-year-old Vega on felony charges might be difficult, said Fresno lawyer Michael Idiart, a former Fresno County assistant district attorney.
That's because the 5-foot, 110-pound Vega appears attractive, and the alleged victim was nearly an adult, he said.
Some jurors are disinclined to convict in those circumstances, Idiart said. "I know it's sexist to say, but it would be easier to convict a male teacher."
In Vega's case, men on the jury are going to think: "Where was she when I was going to school?" Idiart said.
Nationally, perpetrators tend to be men, but female teachers are not rare, said Charol Shakeshaft, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at the Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the 2004 study.
In telephone interviews of 225 superintendents nationwide, Shakeshaft's study found that 4% of the educators investigated for sexual misconduct were females and 96% males.
Shakeshaft said male and female teachers share similar excuses for why they have sex with students.
"Some are fixated sexual abusers," she said. "Others lack judgment and intelligence and impulse control."
Some teachers "think they are in love and that makes it OK," she said.
Shakeshaft said the public is fascinated with these types of cases "because we're a sex-absorbed society, and we wrongly identify this as being about sex rather than being about exploitation, lack of professionalism, and violation of the law."
At Kerman High, Vega has taught language arts to English learners for 21/2 years, said Robert Frausto, superintendent of the Kerman Unified School District. Since her arrest, she has been on administrative leave with pay, he said.
Police say Vega, who was arrested Nov. 9, has confessed to having sex with the student, but they have not provided other details.
On Wednesday, Vega pleaded not guilty to three felony charges of having unlawful sex with a person under 18 years old. She is free on $5,000 bail. If convicted, she faces as much as four years in prison.
As she left the courtroom, television news crews trailed Vega, but she declined to comment. Attorney Eric Green, who represents Vega, likened his client's case to that of Tiger Woods, who recently admitted having an affair and has drawn intense media interest.
Green questioned whether his client's alleged confession is legitimate.
Her next court date is Jan. 6.
Fresno County court records show Vega has no criminal record. Her only offense is a speeding ticket in 2007.
Idiart said Vega pleading to a misdemeanor would be considered justice, and all the prosecution may be able to achieve.
Though women on the jury might want to punish Vega, it still takes a unanimous vote to convict her of a felony, Idiart said.
Vega's biggest challenge will be "the betrayal-of-trust factor," Idiart said.
"We trust teachers to guide our children," he said, "not have sex with them."