Note: we are republishing this story in light of recent reports that show child abuse has significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. More on this here: https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-10-08/study-confirms-rise-in-child-abuse-during-covid-pandemic
27-year-old Stephanie Peterson, a former New Smyrna Beach Middle School teacher facing up to 10 years in prison, filed a motion seeking a lighter sentence. Her attorneys cited, among other reasons, that the 14-year-old victim was “a willing participant.”
Peterson pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious battery sex act with a child, a second-degree felony, and electronic transmission of material harmful to minors, a third-degree felony. She faces between five and 10 years in prison and probation, as per the plea agreement.
A trial conviction would have seen Peterson face up to 15 years in jail for the second-degree felony and five for the third-degree felony. As part of her plea, prosecutors dropped a second count of lewd or lascivious sex battery.
She is also required to register as a sex offender, the plea agreement states.
The plea agreement also allowed her attorneys - Aaron Delgado and William Hathaway - to file a motion seeking a jail term lower than five years listed as the minimum in the plea.
In the motion, the attorneys stated that one of the reasons Peterson deserved a lesser prison sentence was because the 14-year-old victim was “a willing participant.”
However, Stetson College of Law Professor Charlie Rose stated that that was one mitigator he would not have used because the age of consent in Florida is 18.
"The child is below the age of legal consent for sexual activity with an adult so the fact that they were a willing participant, in my mind, is actually an escalator," he said. "It's an indication that perhaps the child was manipulated into engaging in sexual activity. It does not make the crime less culpable."
Peterson’s attorneys also included mental health as another reason, stating that their client was undergoing treatment for a mental disorder that was unrelated to a physical disability or substance abuse. The motion stated that she was participating in a Bi-Polar support group and had received residential treatment at Central Florida Behavioral Hospital.
Peterson’s interactions with the student spanned from November 1, 2017, to January 31, 2018. The teen had asked her for her phone to check his Instagram and forgot to sign out. Later that night, he got a message on his Instagram from Peterson, with the communication continuing on Snapchat.
Peterson sent the teen nude pictures, including one where she was in the shower, her face visible. She drove to his house at night and he would sneak out to meet her. They had sex in her car in the driveway, reports state. Peterson performed oral sex on the teen on her couch in her home, and in a barn behind his home, twice.
The abuse was revealed when another teacher called the teen’s home offering to tutor him, and his mother jokingly asked him if the teacher was going to molest him. The teen began crying, blurting, “Anyone could molest you.”
According to reports, Peterson later asked the teen to “delete everything” on Snapchat.
The motion states that Peterson deserves a lighter sentence because she’s already suffered consequences – she lost her career as a teacher and her standing in the community.
The motion also lists Peterson’s “troubled relationship” with her biological father as a reason for granting her a lesser sentence.