July 31, 2009— -- Once shocking and hard to believe, revelations of sexual relationships between students and teachers have become almost a fixture in news.
But one Kentucky teacher said her arrest for an alleged affair with a 16-year-old football player was unfair and untrue and has ruined her career, possibly her life.
Nicole Howell, 26, was a first-year English teacher finishing up a lesson on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," when she was pulled out of her Dayton High School classroom in December and told she was being suspended for having sex with a student.
"I thought it was preposterous," she said.
It got worse. Howell was arrested for first-degree sexual abuse less than a month later and faces a trial in the fall. Her teaching certificate is in jeopardy and she's had to move back home with her parents.
All for an affair that she says not only never happened, but one that there is no evidence of other than the ramblings of a high school kid who at first claimed the two were involved in a threesome with another male student.
Howell is now planning to sue the school district, the police department and the boy who she says made it all up.
The Covington Police Department did not return messages seeking comment and the accuser's parents could not immediately be reached.
Howell, a graduate of Northern Kentucky University, said she was inspired to become a teacher by one of her former high school teachers.
When she was hired at Dayton High School, Howell said she found it challenging. The town was home to many low-income families and the schools often went without.
"I liked it a lot," she said. "It was a lot, a lot of work."
She was also an assistant cheerleading coach, putting her right in the middle of a throng of cheerleaders and football players who practiced and socialized side-by-side.
Howell said the beginning of her first year as a teacher was going well until early December when she started hearing rumors in the hallway.
"There were a couple of students snickering about a teacher involved in a threesome," she said.
Then the second boy who was supposedly involved, then a senior, told her the rumors were about himself, her and the accuser.
"I'm a first-year teacher," Howell said. "I didn't know what to do."
So she sought the advice of a fellow teacher who told her to speak to the principal to get ahead of the rumor mill.
The principal, she said, "told me at the time ... usually these things die out. We'll look into it.'"
Rumor Leads to Job Loss, Arrest
For a few days, it seemed like the matter had petered out.
Howell said she was told that both boys denied any sexual contact with her to the principal. Other rumors that followed, including that the accuser's father drove his son to her apartment for sex, was also disproved, Howell said.
But on Dec. 15 when she was suspended, Howell said the principal told her that the accuser, who had been threatened with possible expulsion for lying about such a serious allegation, had recanted his denial and was accusing Howell of having sex with him.
Howell said she left school in disbelief and hired a lawyer.
Howell said that while she knew who her accuser was and had interacted with him as part of the football-cheerleading team dynamic, she never once laid a hand on him or any other student, nor had she even been alone with him in school or otherwise.
Somehow, she said, the boy had gotten her cell phone number and the two had begun a series of platonic text messages in October and November. But Howell didn't think anything of it since 25 cheerleaders on the team had her number and texted messaged her also. And she knew of other teachers who texted with their students.
But Howell, whose apartment was photographed by Covington police, learned in early January that there was a warrant out for her arrest. She says a detective told her that she could come in and take a polygraph test that might clear the matter up.
So she did, but not before submitting to a private polygraph, which Howell said she "passed with flying colors."
When Howell got to the police station on Jan. 8, she was told she could not take a polygraph test. After being placed in the waiting room for more than an hour, she was arrested on one count of first-degree sexual abuse.
Her parents bailed her out of jail a few hours later.
"I want to be exonerated," she said. "I want this case to be dimissed."
One motion to dimiss, she said, has already been denied. She's next due in court for a pre-trial hearing on Sept. 28. The trial is scheduled to start Oct. 13.
Dayton Independent Schools Superintendent Gary Rye referred ABCNews.com to the school board's lawyers who declined to comment and made a referral to the county prosecutor.
Kenton County Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Stefanie Kastner told ABCNews.com that if convicted, Howell could face one to five years in prison. A person convicted of first-degree sexual abuse, she said, would also have to register as a sex offender for 20 years.
Beyond that, Kastner said there was little information she could release about the prosecution's case.
"I am ethically not permitted to comment on pending cases," she said. "However, if I didn't think I had sufficient proof to obtain a conviction, the case would not have been indicted."
Accused Teacher: 'I've Never Done Anything Wrong to the Kid'
Howell said there is no real evidence that she did anything wrong. Her lawyer, personal injury attorney Eric Deters, told ABCNews.com today that police say phone records prove the two had a relationship.
But Howell said all they found was the trail of text messages she says were platonic.
"This is outrageous," Deters said. "She's the one that reports it."
Deters said he believed the accuser changed his mind about the affair never happening when he learned he could be expelled from school for such a lie. He said he's seen tapes of the accuser's interview with police.
"This kid will not hold up under any reasonable cross-examination at all," he said.
As for Howell, she has no idea who made up the rumor in the first place or why.
"To this day, I don't know," she said. "I've never done anything wrong to the kid."
Howell said she fears that even if the case is dropped or she's acquitted, she will never work as a teacher again once administrators see she's been charged with sexual abuse.
Even getting a new job as a debt collector in the meantime was difficult.
Her advice to other teachers? Be "super cautious" in every dealing with a student.
"I worked so hard to get where I needed to be and start a career," she said. "And it just got ripped away."