Family of Modesto teacher makes statement; Enochs' staff 'appalled'

naustin@modbee.comMarch 3, 2012 

— While press nationwide focused on a former Enochs High teacher's relationship with a student this week, teens on campus stepped up to change the conversation and his family tried to move on.

While most members in the community expressed outrage and shock, James Hooker, 41, said he and his student, 18-year-old Jordan Powers, followed their hearts. But in doing so, he said, they knew they caused pain to others.

Hooker is married with three daughters, the oldest was a junior at Enochs. Friends said Hooker and his wife were high school sweethearts and, even after the scandal broke, there were hopes the family could reconcile.

Friday, Monte Vista Chapel pastor Ken VanVliet released this statement on behalf of the Hooker family:

"I have been asked to speak on behalf of the wife and children of James Hooker. I am a family friend and their pastor.

"This is a very difficult time for them, so family, friends and the church body have gathered around to support them as they work through the pain caused by James' decision to abandon his family. Their hearts go out to the Powers family for the hurt that they are experiencing as well.

"At this point, they need space to come to terms with the situation. As such, the family has decided not to put themselves in the media spotlight and will not be granting any interviews in order to allow some sense of normalcy to return to their lives. We thank you for respecting their wishes."

National press coverage of Hooker and Powers appeared on networks, cable news, blogs, Facebook posts and trending Twitter feeds.

The attention was "a black eye" for Enochs, Principal Michael Coats said Friday. Hooker resigned and Powers moved to independent study, but the story that broke Tuesday night still shook the campus in northeast Modesto.

"Shocked and appalled" was how English teacher Sara Mariano described teachers' reaction to the relationship. But their first concern was helping students cope with the news.

Black Friday at Enochs

It was the anonymous Enochs Facebook support page To:You that proposed wearing black Friday, a call that went out by Twitter, text and even "old school" … by word of mouth. Mariano said about 80 percent of the school wore black Friday.

The color was meant to symbolize support for one student in particular, Hooker's 17-year-old daughter, who was a junior at the school until Wednesday. Coats said she was well-known and liked across campus, and was on the winning Mock Trial team her father coached.

"She left here with a heavy heart," Coats said. "At every turn, there was a reminder that her dad had left."

She likely left with a black and gold woven friendship bracelets from her days in Mariano's 68-student leadership class. Class members create the "warm and fuzzies" to give each other with a compliment. This week, warm and fuzzies went out to teachers and students all over campus, Mariano said.

"This is one bad thing, but there are 109 awesome teachers, 2,500 awesome kids still here," she said.

Friday afternoon To:You posted: "I love Enochs because you fight for what is right. You stand behind one another. You stand behind black and gold. You showed everyone that no matter what happens to Enochs we are still strong and the best damn school around. Well done, Eagles. Well done."

Even within the school, however, there were some doubts and putdowns. A few "Team Hooker" buttons showed up on campus. "That was kids trying to be funny, saying they support him — that's not us at all," Mariano said.

The buttons were but a side note in an avalanche of national publicity on the teacher-student romance that by Thursday had hit students hard, she said.

"With everything going on, they were just really down," Mariano said. Her 68 leadership students decided to counter the bad press with their own publicity. The #ILoveEnochsBecause Twitter feed was born that morning in her class, she said.

According to tweets posted, Enochs is lovable because it welcomes freshmen, has talented musicians, great athletes, fashion sense and hosts poetry slams.

Jordan Mills tweeted she loves … "the people. We're all so different, but we all seem to mesh do well."

Tolerance was what Christian Conrad loves. "It is filled with so many forward thinking and open-minded people, and those people outweigh the haters," he posted.

While most tweets stuck to chirpy cheers, some students offered their take on the controversy. Randi Nicole wrote she wanted to keep "positivity flowing. Because an incident that doesn't involve us does not reflect us."

As Coats, the principal, put it: "We don't want this current thing to be the thing that people think of when they think of Enochs High."

Kristen Olsen: 'An absolute outrage'

The clandestine romance that began while Hooker and Powers were at Enochs did put the school in the spotlight. It also sparked discussion of ethics and laws surrounding teacher-student dating.

While Modesto police are investigating if any sexual contact happened before Powers turned 18, others are questioning how it could be legal for a teacher to woo any student of any age.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, said the case was "an absolute outrage" and that as a parent, she thinks of schools as safe zones.

"That's just unacceptable. A teacher is in a clear position to have influence over a student," Olsen said Friday, adding she is looking at ways a law could address such teacher conduct.

"Certainly laws don't always dictate behavior. But to the extent we can protect students, we should," she said.

Her outrage, however, was not shared by a Mountain View high school teacher who married a former student.

"We waited. We did it right and legal … and our life together is wonderful. People should hear both sides of this issue," said Joe Newnam, 50.

In 2007, when his wife was 19 and a recent graduate, the two began dating and have now been married for three years. At the time, school and police investigated if there was any pre-18 contact and cleared him, Newnam said.

As for Hooker, "If he's lying, then Hell with him; but if not, they deserve a break," Newnam said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339.

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