Nothing in Ava Owens's personnel file indicated past indiscretions with students. That doesn't necessarily mean that nothing ever happened, however. Procedures agreed to by the school board and the Colorado Education Association make it difficult for administrators to put anything negative in a teacher's file, especially if the teacher protests.
But even if Dinh Tran was Owens's first victim, the question remains: Why was there even one?
The answer is not forthcoming from Ava Owens. She refuses Westword's requests for an interview. And her mother apparently does not have an answer, either. In a letter to the court, Georgia Sayles wrote: "I wonder, Ava, Ava, how or why did you do this thing you've done?" The letter also contains this response from daughter to mother: "Mom, I put the Lord on the back burner for a while, and Satan saw his chance."
Reports from counselors who interviewed her and reported to the court do not blame Satan. They do mention some contributing factors. Counselor Cynthia Jamison wrote that Owens began to feel neglected by her husband as he took up outside interests (she and her husband divorced in the months following her arrest). Owens also told Jamison that around the same time she initiated sex with Dinh, she began smoking marijuana again for the first time since her first year of teaching.
Psychological findings were that Owens has a "naive or unsophisticated self image" and that she has "ego deficits which allow her to blur boundaries and incorporate others' feelings and needs as her own." In plainer English, according to Jamison, Owens is a pedophile.
Jamison wrote that while Owens suffers from "a substantial amount of psychological disturbance," she could possibly learn how to control her pedophilia, although the counselor recommends that she not have unsupervised contact with children.
According to Jamison's report of last August 28, Owens "expresses remorse for her actions and claims now that she understands she has done a terrible thing, 'put this on herself' and 'has sinned' and 'caused a child to sin.'" The report also notes that Owens "expresses concern that Dinh's family does not understand the seriousness of the offense and wonders if they know the necessary steps to get Dinh help. She wonders how her inappropriate behavior will affect Dinh's future relationships."
Su Robinson, another therapist who interviewed Owens, won't discuss the case but points to an article she wrote for the newsletter of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault outlining the differences between male and female sex offenders. Robinson's research of various studies found that while women make up a smaller percentage of those who commit sexual assault, it is still a significant number. And the story describes a "subtype" that seems to fit Owens: "The Teacher/lover offender is a woman who gets involved with latency and adolescent males. She relates to the male as a peer and confidant. Her motive is to teach the male about sexuality. The offender is often dissatisfied with a current relationship and there tend to be conflicts with peer-aged significant others." Robinson's article continues: "This offender's perception of the offending relationship is that it is a 'love affair.'"
But the article does not claim that these reasons should be an excuse. "Our society is hypocritical in the way it handles sex-offending behavior," Robinson writes. "We do not allow male offenders to use any prior victimization as an excuse for sexual offenses." She writes that the same should be true for women.
Owens has been punished, her lawyer says. She will never legally teach again. She lost her husband. She had to use her DPS pension to pay her legal bills, according to divorce documents. While out on bond, she took jobs cleaning hotel rooms and working at a Burger King. She is now serving a ten-year sentence, awaiting transfer to a state prison. Her lawyer, Harris, says there is a reasonable chance that he will be able to get her sentence reduced.
"She is ashamed of her actions," Harris said at her sentencing. "She has led, up to this point, an exemplary life and she has helped many more children than she has hurt."
Dinh Tran faces a long, difficult recovery, experts say, partly because of the prudish nature of his native culture and partly because of the attitude of American society toward women who commit sexual assault.
"Our society is just not ready to deal with this, which only makes it more difficult for the family," says Karin Jordan, clinical director of the Counseling and Family Therapy Center at the University of Colorado at Denver. She says the notion of a woman--and a teacher--committing this kind of crime is so taboo that any family just wouldn't have the words to talk about what happened. The hardest battle to fight, she adds, will be the natural inclination of the boy and his parents to blame themselves. "Does the child feel responsible? Yes," Jordan says. "But that absolutely doesn't make him responsible."