David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Teacher struck off for serious misconduct with teenage girl

Teacher found guilty of serious misconduct over "intense" contact with a 13-year-old girl, found dead shortly after the extent of the relationship was discovered.
Former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back and his partner Angela Mepham were found guilty of serious misconduct over contact with the 13-year-old student. Photo / Supplied.
Former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back and his partner Angela Mepham were found guilty of serious misconduct over contact with the 13-year-old student. Photo / Supplied.

A teacher who formed an inappropriate relationship with a 13-year-old student told her he "so badly" wanted "to climb in your window right now", according to emails and letters exchanged between them.

Former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back and his partner Angela Mepham were found guilty of serious misconduct over contact with the teenage girl, who was found dead shortly after the extent of the relationship was discovered.

Back has been struck off the teachers' register and Mepham censured.

An inquest will examine the circumstances of the student's death later this year.

The NZ Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal decision found Back's relationship with his Gisborne Intermediate student inappropriate and emails and text messages between them "increasingly intimate and intense".

While "an intimate relationship", the tribunal said the evidence before it "did not establish any form of romantic or sexual engagement".

The student, who cannot be named, stayed overnight at the home of the teachers a number of times without her parents' knowledge, including at least two occasions during which Mr Back was home and Ms Mepham was away.

During the course of the relationship, which began in September 2013 and ended in April 2014 when CYFs and police became involved, the student's compulsion to self-harm was known to the teachers but kept from her parents.

This photo of former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back, struck off for serious misconduct, was found among the student's belongings after her death. Photo / Supplied.
This photo of former Gisborne Intermediate teacher Sam Back, struck off for serious misconduct, was found among the student's belongings after her death. Photo / Supplied.

On one occasion, she wrote to Back saying: "It's cute how you thought I'd be okay. Because right now, I'm the farthest thing from okay."

On another, she told him she was "so ashamed of the scars" from self-harming.

The decision stated when the student - who had just turned 13 - took an overdose of paracetamol, Back "allocated her time in the sick bay at school but did not inform her parents or instigate any medical follow-up".

Through the course of the relationship, Back took on a role of counselling the girl - as did Mepham - without informing her parents or others of the issues with which the girl was wrestling.

The tribunal stated: "Mr Back does not have adequate training or experience to engage in this sort of role."

Back, who called the girl "darlin" and "mon amie", wrote of watching the planet Venus to remind him of her and how when at school "everywhere I looked I saw your eyes".

In 2014, the girl left the intermediate school and began attending boarding school in another region but emails, letters and text messages continued.

In one, he wrote: "I would like to share something I read that reminded me of you, and me, and our million years ... 'together forever, never apart, maybe in distance but never in heart'."

Relationship exposed

Throughout the communications, Back told the girl not to tell anyone because he could get into trouble, the tribunal reported.

In March 2014, the girl left boarding school and returned to the Gisborne area where she sought out Back and Mepham.

Police, called by the girl's parents, found the three in a car but no one was told of their previous contact when she was returned home.

The following day the girl was admitted to hospital for psychiatric care.

Back and Mepham continued to seek her out but deliberately staged their visits to her at separate times "so it does not look like us vs them", according to evidence submitted to the tribunal.

The relationship began to be exposed when a nurse discovered Back alone in the girl's room after 8pm one night, finding the girl sitting cross-legged and her former teacher lying on the bed.

The nurse noticed the pair were "holding hands" and others later saw "cuddling".

The nursing staff reported concerns to CYFS which brought in police.

No charges were laid.

However, the report led to an investigation by the school which gave Back an employment warning and alerted the Teachers' Council.

'You don't love me'

Later that year the girl wrote to Back, saying: "People say things like I will always love you, I will always be here for you, things will get better 'I promise'.

"But, it's six months later, and you don't love me. You aren't here for me and things haven't gotten any better."

She also told him she would "take those disgraces that we've incurred together all onto myself" to protect him.

"I love you so much that I value your good reputation as my own." The girl died on August 1, 2014.

The girl's mother told the tribunal she was unaware of the extent of the relationship until after her daughter was receiving psychiatric help.

When she became aware of the "sheer volume" of communication between her daughter and Back, it was a "complete shock and ... difficult to assimilate".

The girl's parents told the tribunal: "He was dishonest and lied to us. He has been overly familiar and infatuated with (our daughter). He has undermined us as her parents and misused and abused his position of trust and power as a teacher."

Dr Andrew Immelman, the girl's primary mental health worker, provided evidence which stated the relationship with Back had the "direct consequence" of interfering with his and others ability to treat the girl.

He said he and colleagues had felt they were impeded in being able to diagnose and treat the student because of these background matters but could not pin down what those issues were.

Relationship impeded treatment

The most likely issue seemed to be grief over the loss of a relationship, he said.

On reading the evidence which emerged during the hearings, he said there was "absolutely no doubt in (his) mind (the girl's relationship with Back) impeded her treatment".

He said Mepham had also made matters more complicated by her failure to inform him or colleagues as to the extent of the relationship.

Mepham did receive support from the board of trustees and principal at Wainui Beach School, where she currently works.

Board chairwoman Ailsa Cuthbert testified that Mepham had been undergoing health issues and that the involvement with the girl had happened during the period of her illness.

She also described the events as a "wake-up call" and said she had confidence "if (Mepham) ever faces such challenges again that she would follow procedure".

During the hearing, Back apologised to the girl's parents. The tribunal's finding shows he expected to be struck off.

"In hindsight, I can see that I lost my way and became too involved in a student's life," he told the tribunal.

"I never wanted it this way but I lacked the skill at the time to extricate myself from a very complex and trying situation without letting her down or breaking her trust."

The tribunal struck Back from the Register of Teachers and ordered Mepham to undergo training, saying "she was drawn into this matter and drawn into acting in an inappropriate way towards the student by the first respondent".

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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