March 14, 2008— -- The arrest Thursday of a middle school teacher accused of having sex with a teenage student has thrust a Florida school district made famous by Debra Lafave into an uncomfortable yet familiar position.
Stephanie Ragusa, a 28-year-old special education teacher, was arrested Thursday and charged with five counts of lewd and lascivious battery for what sheriff's deputies in Hillsborough County described as a consensual sexual relationship with a 14-year-old male student.
Ragusa's alleged affair took place between January and May 2007 and included intercourse on at least three occasions and oral sex twice, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The encounters took place in Ragusa's Tampa apartment and in the back seat of her Lexus, according to the sheriff's office.
A school resource officer met with the student, now 15, after rumors began swirling about an affair involving a teacher. Detectives then interviewed the teen and his parents. The teen told authorities that Ragusa had a pair of tattoos on "either side of the groin area" that could only be seen if the teacher was naked.
Under police direction, the teen called Ragusa, who "admitted to the interaction" and also said she knew of the "repercussions for having engaged in the act," according to the sheriff's office.
Hillsborough investigators consulted with the state attorney's office and obtained a warrant for Ragusa's arrest. Ragusa, who appeared in court today, is being held at the Hillsborough County Jail without bail.
Ragusa was a teacher at Davidsen Middle School last year when the alleged affair took place. Davidsen is part of the Hillsborough County school district, which has come to know teacher-student sex scandals intimately — in large part thanks to Debra Lafave.
The bombshell blonde, arguably the highest-profile female teacher involved in a student sex scandal this century, also taught at a Hillsborough County middle school, the Greco Middle School. Lafave is currently serving three years of house arrest and seven years' probation after pleading guilty to having sex with a 14-year-old male student during a 2004 affair. She was 23 at the time.
Lafave violated her probation by discussing her personal life with a 17-year-old female co-worker at a restaurant, but she avoided prison when a Florida judge ruled in January that her violations were neither "willful nor substantial" enough to merit jail time.
During the same period as Lafave's affair, Jaymee Wallace, a math teacher and girls basketball coach at Wharton High School in Hillsborough County, was having a consensual lesbian relationship with a female student basketball player. The two-year relationship began with a note from Wallace, then 28, to the student, 14: "I think you're attractive. Do you feel the same?" The affair lasted nearly two years, even through Wallace's marriage.
Wallace was arrested in November 2005. The student asked a Florida judge before Wallace's October 2007 sentencing to spare the woman jail time. The student's family, however, told the judge it wanted her to serve at least three years, which is exactly the prison sentence she received — plus three years of probation. Like Lafave, she also must be registered in a sex offender database.
In October 2007, Christina Lin Butler, a 33-year-old special education teacher at Hillsborough County's Middleton High School, was arrested after admitting to having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male student there.
Police conducting surveillance in Butler's neighborhood pulled over a Jeep Cherokee that was swerving and traced the vehicle to Butler. The driver told police that his "friend" Christina had lent him the car, according to ABC News' Tampa affiliate, and another passenger said the driver was in a relationship with Butler. Police investigated and arrested Butler after she admitted the sexual relationship to police.
Butler was booked on a single charge of lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor. She was released from the Hillsborough County Jail after posting a $7,500 bond, according to sheriff's office records.
Butler, a temporary employee, has been suspended without pay and was notified that she will not be offered a position next year, Linda Cobbe, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County School District, told ABC News.
Ragusa received a letter in jail Thursday night notifying her that she was suspended with pay, Cobbe said, adding that Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia will ask the county's school board next week to revoke Ragusa's payment during the suspension.
Ragusa, who was also booked in Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in July 2005 on a charge of driving under the influence, did not notify school officials of that previous arrest when she applied for a teaching position in August 2006.
"She apparently falsified information," Cobbe said, "She checked that she had no prior arrests."
The suspended teacher has a degree in political science from the University of South Florida, Cobbe said, and had nothing in her application file that would indicate that she was a threat to students. "There's no way to predict who is going to enter into an affair with a student," Cobbe said. "We certainly didn't know she had tendencies like she's done."
Hillsborough School District is the eighth largest school district in the country, Cobbe said, with more than 15,000 teachers, 236 schools and 192,000 students. A reputation for teachers preying on students is hardly what the school district wants, and Cobbe said that district officials do everything they can to vet employees.
When problems do arise, the school district does not hide. "We address it every time it happens," Cobbe said, describing ethics classes every teacher must take that address inappropriate relationships with students. "We don't stand for it."
Cobbe did acknowledge that the district, like all others in Florida, is required by the state to have a certain number of teachers per students, a mandate that means a lot of hiring in what until recently was a very fast-growing county.
"We have a few teachers who have been accused of crimes that are unconscionable," Cobbe said. "We have more than 15,000 teachers who are dedicated and trustworthy."