By Karen Alexander Jamie Reno Johnny Dodd
October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

JUST WHEN THEY THOUGHT the affair was behind them and the healing had begun, the parents and teachers of Shorewood Elementary in Burien, Wash., feel their sense of dread rising once more. On Oct. 17, Mary Katherine Letourneau, a teacher at the school for eight years, will be sentenced for two counts of second-degree rape of a child.

“This just drags it out,” says Nick Latham, a spokesman for the Highline school district. “The parents and teachers are afraid it will dredge up another media deluge.”

In fact that’s almost a certainty, given the coverage already devoted to the Letourneau story. It began to unfold last Feb. 26, when Letourneau, now 35, was called to the principal’s office and arrested for molesting a 13-year-old male former student. At first the allegation seemed preposterous: Letourneau, a married mother of four, had in her time at Shorewood developed a sterling reputation as a hard-working, creative teacher. “She gave kids the freedom and flexibility to learn,” says Jean Blackburn, a school social worker. “These kids identified with her.”

As did their parents, some of whom proposed a defense fund. They were soon disillusioned. Letourneau was pregnant at the time, at first allowing people to believe that the father was her husband. But on May 29 she gave birth to a daughter who, she later acknowledged, was the child of the 13-year-old. (He turned 14 in June.) Although Letourneau subsequently pleaded guilty to rape charges and now says she realizes the affair was wrong, she said she had not felt that way in the beginning. “When the relationship started, it seemed natural,” she told NBC’s Today show in August. “What didn’t seem natural was that there was a law forbidding such a natural thing.”

At first, says Blackburn, children at Shorewood were “confused and sad to lose their beloved teacher.” That turned to a sense of betrayal as her guilt became evident—a crisis intervention team including two psychologists and two social workers was on call when classes resumed on Sept. 3—but since then the school’s 500 students seem to have moved on. “Kids are resilient,” says school spokesman Latham, who adds that no teacher has requested a visit from the crisis team.

Letourneau’s relationship with the boy—as a minor, he has not been publicly identified—began innocently enough. In 1991 she was his second-grade teacher at Shorewood. Realizing the child was gifted, Letourneau took it upon herself to introduce him to the piano and buy him art supplies. “He’s an awfully talented artist,” says a friend of Letourneau’s, who asked to remain anonymous. “She helped get him scholarships for Saturday classes at a local community college. Mary guided him. He listened to her.”

Letourneau continued to tutor the boy over the years, and the relationship turned physical in June 1996, when he was 13. He and Letourneau had sex several times, in her home and in her car. “We made a plan,” the boy told KIRO-TV. “The only way to keep us together was to have a baby, so the baby would keep me reminded of her.” The affair came to light when Mary’s husband, Steve, who is now suing for divorce, found love letters to the boy.

Until then, Mary Letourneau had lived quietly with Steve, a cargo-loading specialist for Alaska Airlines, and their four children—Steven, 12, Mary Claire, 10, Nicholas, 6, and Jacqueline, 3—in a three-bedroom home in Normandy Park, south of Seattle. By all accounts a caring, devoted mother, she took her kids to church and imbued them early with a sense of right and wrong. “On her refrigerator, she stuck a list of rules she wanted her children to follow,” says a friend. “It listed things like to not call each other names, to not raise their voices, to share and to do their chores.”

Yet despite her commitment to the children, she was not happy in her relationship with Steve, whom she had met while both were students at Arizona State. “Our marriage was not complete bliss,” admits Steve. “We were at a struggling point.” Still, he was stunned by the affair. “It’s so bizarre,” he says.

Curiously there was once a similar scandal—though not involving a minor—in his wife’s family. Mary was the fourth of six surviving children of former Republican congressman John G. Schmitz of Orange County, Calif., and his wife, Mary. Schmitz, a former member of the John Birch Society, kept a notably strict household. An outspoken opponent of sex education, he is said to have made his children switch schools when he thought officials were considering teaching such courses. It was in 1982 that his political career came to a crashing halt after he had served one term in Congress, when it was revealed that he had had a nine-year affair with a onetime student from his political science class at Santa Ana College and had fathered two children with her.

Letourneau, currently in jail awaiting sentencing and facing up to 7½ years in prison, has already paid dearly for her transgressions: She has been separated from the children to whom she was so devoted. Steve Letourneau recently moved the family to his native Alaska, while Audrey, Mary’s daughter from her recent affair, is being cared for by the boy’s mother until custody is awarded after Oct. 17. (The boy, who received counseling throughout the spring, has returned to Shorewood.) Meanwhile, Steve believes some sort of court-ordered therapy may be the best thing for Mary. “I want her to get the help she needs so that she can have a relationship with her children. But,” he adds quietly, “it will never be the same.”

KAREN ALEXANDER and JOHNNY DODD in Seattle and JAMIE RENO in Orange County