Sub teacher’s home described as den of ill behavior

For more than two months, a simple beige house on Leslie Street was a magnet for teen boys, drawn by the presence of a friend whose mother was a substitute teacher in the Terrebonne Parish school system, video games and the promise of a safe place to socialize and play.

But last week additional details about the place the boys’ parents thought was a safe haven took on ominous tones, resulting in accusations that the substitute had over that period of time engaged in sexual relations with some of the boys, who are between 15 and 16 years old.

Heidi Domangue-Verret, 30, has been in the Terrebonne Parish jail since last Wednesday, booked on a single count of indecent behavior with a juvenile and three counts of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. An investigation is still being conducted by Houma Police Department detectives, amid allegations that other children may have been victimized.

The mother of the accused maintains that her daughter will ultimately be vindicated. She asked not to be identified publicly, not because she doesn’t want to stand by her daughter, but because of concerns for privacy and security.

“My daughter is innocent,” she said.

The case has raised questions among the parents of the victims and the community at large as to how harsh a prosecution will ensue because the suspect is female and the victims male. While acknowledging that the case is so new he has not completed reviewing all the details, Terrebonne District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. says gender will have no bearing on how the case is handled as the process moves forward.

“We take every case involving sexual assault seriously regardless of the defendant’s gender,” Waitz said. “As we do in every case, we will evaluate the facts and evidence once the case is forwarded to us by the investigating agency and meet with the victims and their family to determine what recommendations will be presented to the court. The gender of the victims or defendant, will not be a determining factor. I do not believe that just because she is a female and the victims were young boys that she should be given a lighter sentence. She had the position of influence and she used that to the disadvantage of young children. It’s very wrong and she should be treated as any other child sex offender male or female.”

Interviews with parents of the victims and other information indicate that contact with the boys was not the result of Verret-Domangue’s position as a substitute teacher, which she was relieved of as soon as accusations of impropriety surfaced. Rather, they said, friends of her own 14-year-old son comprised the core group of youngsters routinely hosted after school hours. The three victims Verret-Domangue is alleged to have engaged in relations with were friends of those friends.

But identification of Domangue-Verret by their sons as a teacher, parents said, was one reason they felt comfortable with them spending so much time at her home.

“The kids looked at her even though she wasn’t their teacher, they looked at her as a teacher,” said the mother of a 16-year-old boy who was allegedly victimized. “When I asked him where he was going he would say he was going with his cousin to Miss Heidi, that she is a teacher who lives down the street. I felt a little safer. We send out kids to school with these people eight hours a day.”

Authorities became involved after the parent of a 12-year-old boy expressed concerns to school officials over text messages he had allegedly received from Domangue-Verret. He was allegedly acquainted with her because of his friendship with one of her children, a daughter. While the messages are said to have appeared innocuous and contained no sexual context, they were enough to have her removed from the list of authorized substitutes by the School District. Hundreds of substitutes who pass background checks are on the rolls of those who may fill in at the schools; officials said there is no school-specific pool of substitutes.

Teachers are barred by strict policy from electronic communication with individual students except under very specific circumstances.

The parents of that child, following a recommendation from school officials, contacted Houma police and the investigation began. During the course of that probe that detectives learned of allegations concerning sexual activities with older children. Parents were notified and boys were interviewed.

Parents of the boys said detectives kept their questioning to a minimum, referring the teens to Waitz’s child advocacy center, where counselors skilled in working with cases of sexual abuse could obtain information without tainting the narratives. Gingerly, parents asked questions of their sons after the official inquiry had been conducted. The Times is withholding the names of the parents and of the boys due to the sensitive nature of the allegations.

“It wasn’t an isolated child; it was multiple children,” one parent said. “She should be labeled a predator. She should receive jail time and very extensive counseling. Children are children and it doesn’t matter if they are male or female. Some people say that if it is an older male teacher messing with a little girl it is different. But it is not. These children are still traumatized and I am worried about the long-term effects.”

One of the boys, after discussions of what occurred, told his mother that he felt embarrassed and used. A thorny side-question has emerged, as well. Parents want their boys tested for sexually transmitted diseases, a desire that has drawn some balks.

As noted by Waitz, the case is in its early stages and prosecutors must still evaluate the available evidence to determine what kind of prosecution it supports. Relatives of Domangue-Verret say they are at a loss for explanations for now, although they have faith in who she is as a person to question the veracity of the charges. Some have said that shortly before the case arose, Verret and her husband, Michael, told the boys who routinely gathered that they could no longer come to the house on Leslie Street. There had been complaints from neighbors that some boys were climbing the back fence onto the property of neighbors, they said, and stealing their oranges.

The parent of the boys have different versions, coaxed from their sons, that suggest Mr. Verret had warned them away because he suspected sexual activity. Police said they could not verify whether they were told this because the case is still under investigation.

If indeed the teens were subjected to sexual activity with someone they saw as an authority figure, mental health experts and advocates for sexual abuse survivors say, there are very real potentials for negative consequences.

“There is a lot of potential to pressure or entice in ways that we don’t want minors to be enticed,” said Andrew Smiler author of “Dating and Sex: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy,” who counsels male survivors. “I don’t know why anyone would think a 17-year-old boy has equal power to a 30-year-old woman. In U.S. culture we assume that boys just want sex and are not interested in relationships, that this is typical … Most guys never get told that they can say no, that they can turn someone down. They are expected to say yes.”

Victims regardless of their gender are at risk for depression or anxiety disorders, PTSD and contemplation of suicide, said Smiler, whose organization provides free online support for men who are victims of sexual abuse.

Prosecutors who believe they may have trouble bringing juries to understand that a young man can indeed be sexually abused as a matter of criminal law, he said, have a duty to educate juries.

He recommends that in difficult trials they bring in an expert to explain the damage sexual abuse of a boy by a woman can produce.

“If our goal is to have a just society and have our lives mean what they say, the prosecution in these cases should bring experts,” said the Charlotte-based counselor. “They need to educate juries as to the facts of adolescent development so that they can really understand potential impact.” •