FARMINGTON — When her family moved to Utah from Arizona, a mother watched as her once vibrant son become emotionally distant as he struggled to fit in at a new school.
The one bright spot, the mother said Thursday while weeping in a Farmington courtroom, was his friendly new English teacher, Brianne Altice.
"I have the coolest English teacher, she really gets me," the then-16-year-old told his parents, the mother explained Thursday.
But months later when she discovered text messages on her son's phone, it became clear that the boy's connection to Altice had reached outside the classroom, and as she later learned, had escalated into a secret, sexual relationship.
Instead of encouraging the teenager to be successful in his new school, "she nurtured his feelings, she toyed with his emotions, and acted on her own needs and desires," the mother said.
The mother noted that Altice had asked the judge not to send her to prison in the interest of her children.
"We can't help wondering how much she was thinking of her children when she chose to engage sexually with ours," the mother said.
Altice, a former Davis High School teacher, was ordered Thursday to spend at least two and up to 30 years in the Utah State Prison. She pleaded guilty to three counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, involving sexual activity with three students who were 16 or 17 at the time. In exchange for her plea, 11 other felony charges were dismissed.
Second District Judge Thomas Kay sentenced her to three terms of one to 15 years in prison and ordered two of those terms to be served consecutively and one concurrently.
"I don't know if you are taking responsibility. I also wonder if you're in denial of what you've done," Kay told Altice before pronouncing his sentence.
Prosecutors told the judge that when Altice had the chance to halt her students' flirtations, she instead developed them into secret relationships with enduring consequences for the three young men. Her actions, they said, were deliberate and escalated with each teenage boy.
"There are layers of excuses, minimization, not taking responsibility," deputy Davis County attorney Cristina Ortega said. "This is not just a mistake, it was a mistake that was repeated with three separate students."
Two of the teens bragged about receiving A grades from Altice despite doing "no work" in her class, Ortega said. The third victim believed he was going to marry the teacher and at one point convinced one of the other teens to recant his story because he feared the accusations were ruining Altice's life.
"He was really in love with her," the prosecutor said, adding that Altice had in turn told him she was in love with him.
Asking that Altice not be sent to prison, defense attorney Ed Brass said his client was struggling in her marriage, being told regularly at home that she was unworthy and unattractive. Then she would go to school where she was "lavished with attention" and "relentlessly pursued."
"(Altice) blurred the lines between being a teacher and being a friend," Brass said, adding later that the former teacher is "a damaged person who needs counseling and therapy."
Police say the teacher befriended the boys while they were students, eventually progressing to three separate sexual relationships, meeting the teens for sex at parks, in cars and at her home while her then-husband was away. The couple has since divorced. Additional charges were filed in January after police say Altice resumed a relationship with one of the students while she was out on bail.
At the height of the case, Altice was facing four trials and 14 felony charges, including rape, forcible sodomy, forcible sexual abuse, unlawful sexual activity with a minor and dealing in materials harmful to a minor.
Addressing the judge, Altice, who wept softly at moments during the proceeding, spoke of the realizations she has made about her destructive behavior since being incarcerated. As she did in a letter she penned to Kay from the Davis County Jail in May asking to remain in jail until she could be released to be with her family, Altice told the judge she was "harmless" and vowed never to repeat the crime.
"I am human and I messed up at a vulnerable time," Altice told the judge Thursday. "I take responsibility for what I have done and what I failed to do."
She also acknowledged in the letter that her "teaching career is over," asking for the chance to start a new life and dedicate herself to her children.
Kay, however, said he didn't "see a lot of remorse" in her letter, noting she hasn't had an opportunity to re-offend because she has been behind bars.
Both the mother who spoke and Ortega noted that conversations surrounding the case, which has become known across the country and even internationally, has suggested Altice's actions are less grievous because the students are male.
"Society for some reason says, 'They're boys, they're men, this would be any kid's fantasy.' It's not. This is real life," the prosecutor said.
The emotional and psychological ramifications to the victims, the mother noted, likely won't ever be fully understood, and the stigma of the case follows her son daily.
"We know from watching this unfold that our family, and our son, will never be the same," the mother said, noting that her son has been harassed and even threatened. "I can tell you unequivocally that these boys are victims and they will be affected by these unlawful interactions."
Brass apologized to the victims and their families on behalf of his client. "She knows what she did is not only wrong, it was illegal," he said.
Kay said he admired all of his teachers and they inspired him to be better. And if his classmates had ever flirted with a teacher, "We would have been in the principal's office so fast our heads would spin," he said.
"You're the teacher, you're the adult," he told Altice. "We expect teachers to help and not hurt our children."
One of the victims in the case, along with his parents, filed a personal injury lawsuit in March seeking at least $674,000 in damages for the abuse. The lawsuit claims the school had reprimanded Altice after receiving photographs showing "inappropriate contact with students," but did not take steps to prevent further problems.
The school district filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on June 25, along with a memorandum of support from the Utah Attorney General's Office.
A second lawsuit against the district, filed in April by another of the teenage victims and his parents, said the teen suffered lingering emotional trauma and anxiety. That lawsuit was dismissed last month.
In both lawsuits, the Utah Attorney General's Office filed motions saying the effects the abuse, while traumatic for the young men, are not the district's responsibility.
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