Guardian News and Media/London
A teacher convicted of child abduction for escaping to France with a 15-year-old pupil has been jailed for five-and-a-half years after also separately admitting five counts of sexual activity with a child.
Jeremy Forrest, 30, sparked an international police hunt after he and the teenager spent just over a week on the run in France last September when their relationship was discovered.
He faced only the single charge of child abduction during his trial at Lewes crown court.
Although the girl, who cannot be named, told the court that she and the married maths teacher had begun having sex shortly after her 15th birthday, Forrest was not initially charged with sex offences for legal reasons linked to his extradition from France, something which could not previously be reported.
The trial judge, Michael Lawson QC, imposed a jail term of five-and-half years on all the counts.
Forrest has already spent nine months on remand.
The jury took less than two hours to convict Forrest of abduction. His former pupil, now 16, who has remained loyal to him since his arrest, sat behind him, burying her head in her hands and weeping.
The teacher had mouthed “I love you” to the girl as he was brought up to the dock for the verdict on Thursday.
Interpol and border forces were placed on alert after the pair disappeared. They were caught in Bordeaux after he had been recognised, by which time the girl’s mother had feared she was dead.
Police and prosecutors argued that the teenager was a vulnerable child exploited by a narcissistic abuser. “Jeremy Forrest grossly abused the trust placed in him,” detective inspector Mark Ling from Sussex police said after the conviction.
“His actions caused distress and anxiety among parents, family members and a school community.”
Questions remain over whether more could have been done about a relationship that had been simmering for seven months before the pair fled, and was, the court heard, the subject of widespread rumour around Bishop Bell school in Eastbourne, East Sussex.
Headteacher Terry Boatwright defended the school, saying that until the September last year there had only been “very limited anecdotal hearsay and no evidence of a relationship. However, even so, everything was investigated following appropriate safeguarding procedures.” At no time before September, he added, did the evidence reach “the threshold to involve the police formally”.
The Local Safeguarding Children Board in East Sussex has begun a serious case review into the actions of the school, local authority and police. It will investigate whether a wider pattern of poor pastoral care exists at a school that has faced three cases linked to child sex abuse inside four years.
In 2009 a supply teacher from Bishop Bell was jailed for having sex with two teenage pupils. More recently, the school was widely criticised after failing to remove a retired priest as chair of governors for more than a year after claims of child sex abuse against him emerged.
There will also be questions for the police to answer.
The court heard how the pair fled the day after officers and child protection officials seized the teenager’s phone following a tip-off it contained intimate photos of Forrest.
None were found, meaning the teacher was not arrested before he escaped.
However, they did exist - one showed the teacher wearing only a pair of boxer shorts - and were shown to the jury.
Forrest opted not to give evidence, instead relying on the girl’s testimony that the journey happened not just with her consent but at her specific instigation, and Forrest feared she might come to harm if she went alone.
It was a notion dismissed by the prosecution. “This is not Romeo and Juliet,” said Richard Barton QC. “This is a 15-year-old girl with her own vulnerabilities, and a 30-year-old teacher.”
The court heard that Forrest’s relationship with the girl began as a normal teacher-pupil interaction, with her calling him “sir” and being told off for wearing nail varnish. She developed a crush on him, and an apparent turning point came during a school trip to Los Angeles in February 2012, when Forrest publicly comforted the girl, who was experiencing personal difficulties.