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Ex-Teacher Debra LaFave ‘Has Become a Christian and She’s a Great Mom’ Years After Student Sex Scandal: Friend

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Wherever Debra Lafave goes, people recognize her.

Lafave became nationally-known in 2004 when she was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a student at the Tampa-area school where she taught. She was 24; he was 14. The story became international news — partly because female teacher sex scandals were relatively rare, and partly because Lafave was a tall, statuesque blonde.

The boy told police officers in Temple Terrace, Florida, that he had sex with Lafave three times in four days, according to court documents. One of those times was allegedly in a car while his 15-year-old cousin drove them around. He also said she performed a sex act on him multiple times, including during one encounter at her home.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement

In November 2006, Lafave pleaded guilty in Hillsborough County court to two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior. In court, she offered her “deepest apologies” to the boy and his family and said she was “deeply remorseful.” She also disclosed that she was undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder.

“My greatest regret would probably be the fact that I put this young man through this,” she said in court. She was sentenced to three years house arrest and seven years probation and was required to register as a sex offender.

Thirteen years have passed since her arrest, but Lafave is still constantly recognized in the Tampa area. “We’d go to the mall, and people just stare,” her friend, Joe Zuniga, tells PEOPLE. “She looks the exact same. She still gets hate mail about it. She hates the attention.”

Victor Junco/Tampa Tribune/AP

Zuniga, a Latin recording artist, has known LaFave for more than a decade — and she cooperated with him in the publication of a book about her life, Debra Lafave: A Crown of Beauty for Ashes. The self-published book is sympathetic to his friend, who Zuniga says has grown both spiritually and emotionally since the scandal.

“She’s a completely different person when she was when she was 24,” says Zuniga. “She has grown up a lot. She has become a Christian, and she’s a great mom. She recently got married, and she just ignores the media. She knows it will always be there, but she focuses on her life now. It’s very normal.”

Victor Junco/Tampa Tribune/AP

“She Makes No Excuses”

Lafave is now 37 years old, living in a modest 3-bedroom home in a small Tampa suburb. She had twin boys in 2011, but the relationship didn’t last. She recently got married again.

As a registered sex offender, Lafave is required to check in with the state regularly to give her whereabouts.

Zuniga says that Lafave understands the gravity of what she did in 2004. “She makes no excuses for what she did,” he says. “She has always owned up to it. She says, ‘If I could turn back time, I’d never would do that.’ She understands that she didn’t just negatively affect her life, but she hurt many other people, and she is still very sorry for it.” 

Lafave has not responded to PEOPLE’s request for an interview. “Everyone contacts her to tell her story,” says Zuniga. “I’ve asked her why she wouldn’t, and she says she’s just not interested in the attention. She wants to just live her life as a wife and mom.”