Jaclyn McLaren was a popular teacher who was known for lavishing attention on the boys in her class. When she started messaging them on social media, the flirtation turned into a criminal obsession that landed her in prison. Anatomy of a sexting scandal

Jaclyn McLaren never quite fit in. She grew up just outside Belleville, on a farm that had been in her family for five generations. Her father was a quiet workaholic, while her mother served as the family disciplinarian. She was the eldest of three girls. The middle sister, Katie, was closest with their mom, and Tara, the youngest, was their dad’s favourite. Jaclyn always drifted on the margins. While her sisters embraced farm life, Jaclyn was less interested in doing chores in the barn or ­caring for the animals. Instead, she focused on school. By the time she entered Grade 9, she was an A student, determined to finish high school a year early, get to university and start a life of her own.

After high school, McLaren enrolled at Trent University, where she majored in psychology. She’d return home to the farm on weekends, spending time with her family and working as a cashier at a nearby truck stop. During the week, she would spiral out of control, drinking heavily every night. Despite her partying, she kept up her studies and graduated from Trent in 2001, but she had trouble finding work. Desperate, she moved home and took a job as a server at the local strip joints: first the Cabaret, then the Go-Go Club, where she was making as much as $500 a night in tips. She craved the kind of attention that the clubs’ patrons were only too happy to provide. Around this time, Jaclyn started a regular coke habit. She’d often snort and drink at work, getting too high to count out her money at the end of a shift.

McLaren began dating a contract labourer named Scott Jones. They married in 2010 at the family farm, and she took his name. With her parents’ help, they bought a modest brick bungalow in nearby Stirling. But the marriage was troubled from the start. Jaclyn believed Scott was cheating on her, and she always complained that they didn’t have enough money. Even so, she tried to buy her husband’s attention and affection with extravagant gifts, like a trip to Florida.

At some point, she decided it was time to clean up her act. She quit the Go-Go Club and enrolled in a bachelor of education program at Queen’s University. In 2011, at age 31, she secured a job teaching French at Tweed-Hungerford, which would later become Tweed Elementary School. She asked her students to call her Madame Jones.

As a new teacher, McLaren had a difficult time controlling her students. She taught core French in grades 6 through 8, and though she didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, former students say her classes were often chaotic. She rarely followed the lesson plans she handed out at the beginning of class. Kids would ask to go to the bathroom and not come back, ducking out to Tim Hortons or wandering the hallways until the bell rang. Sometimes, McLaren would catch the truants and send them to the principal’s office, but she didn’t bother to ensure they arrived. Eventually, she gave up on structured lessons ­altogether, passing out worksheets for students to complete independently. During this time, she liked to chat with certain kids, paying special attention to the boys. She’d sit at her desk and listen to music on a Bluetooth speaker.

McLaren was pretty and sun-weathered, with brown eyes and rosy cheeks that winked into apples when she smiled. The boys regularly took photos of her, angling their phones at her butt or down her shirt when she leaned over. Other times, she took flirty selfies in front of the class. Soon, the boys were looking her up on social media, easily finding her Facebook profile and Instagram account. McLaren became Facebook friends with some of her students. Many followed her on ­Instagram. She’d post photos that showed her sitting pertly, strategically tilted to show off her cleavage.

Instead of blocking her students or talking to them about how to use social media appropriately, she brushed off their incessant questions in class and online, even as they grew more personal and sexual. Once, students asked if she really called her husband Boner Jones—a nickname they’d seen online. McLaren laughed, said yes and changed the subject. Another time, the same boys used their fingers to write in the grime on her car: “I wish my boyfriend were as dirty as this.” In class, a student loaded a sexually explicit video onto the Smart Board. When McLaren saw, she said, “I’m going to get into so much trouble.” They treated her like a classmate instead of a teacher, and she seemed unable—or unwilling—to stop it.

The boys in her class had initiated her into their social media circles. I spoke to several teens for this story, both in Toronto and in Belleville, and every one of them said they’re online almost constantly, ping-ponging between Snapchat and Instagram. Snapchat is a particular favourite, the teens told me, because their parents and teachers have no idea what it is and rarely monitor it. Most Snapchat users under 25 visit the app in excess of 20 times a day.

Teens bring their phones to school, using them before the bell rings, at lunch, during class. Social media use is so pervasive that this past May the Toronto District School Board announced a temporary Snapchat, Instagram and Netflix ban. Administrators said that the students’ Wi-Fi use had overloaded the schools’ aging networks, and they hoped to have a new Wi-Fi system in place for the 2017–2018 school year. The kids got around the ban within days, using VPNs. When I asked the teens how they knew to do this, they laughed at me, as if I were asking how they learned to tie their shoes.

Social media has created a hidden culture where teens can live under the radar. The students I spoke with seemed to think that being asked for nude photos is a necessary price of being connected at all times. Two 14-year-old boys swore that they’d never asked girls for nude photos, but they admitted that it’s common for boys in their class to hound girls for them, even if they don’t really expect any to comply. For girls, getting requests for nudes is as normal as posting photos with flower crowns or using goofy filters.

As students get older, the demands can escalate. One 17-year-old girl told me she gets asked for nudes on Instagram a few times a week, whether it’s from boys at her school or complete strangers. Sometimes, instead of asking, the boys will send her shots of themselves, either naked or nearly there. While explaining this to me, she blushed, repeatedly using the phrase “inappropriate photos” as I prodded her to explain what she meant. “You know,” she told me, “pictures of their….” In one case, she had an acquaintance harass her over Snapchat for months. He messaged her constantly, sometimes simply saying “Hi” and other times sending pictures of his genitals. She said her friends have had similar experiences, but that they don’t talk about it because it’s embarrassing. “I don’t like it, but it’s more annoying than scary,” she said.

This anything-goes culture has drifted into the classroom, in some extreme cases erasing the boundaries between students and teachers—all it takes is one late-night acceptance of a friend request from a kid, or an email that strays into personal territory. Students who’d never consider calling a teacher at home won’t think twice about sending a Facebook message or text. To help navigate the new on-call climate, the Ontario College of Teachers released a professional advisory on electronic ­communication and social media. Essentially, it warns teachers never to go down the path at all. Don’t friend. Don’t follow. Don’t share. Direct any student in crisis to the appropriate resource or family member. Do it during school hours and copy a parent on correspondence. Don’t say or post or do anything you wouldn’t also do in front of your whole class and their parents. Jaclyn McLaren, desperate to be desired, broke every rule.

In 2013, a few grade 8 boys borrowed McLaren’s phone during class. As one of the boys scrolled through her photo album, he found a picture of her bare breasts and showed two of his friends. Once McLaren discovered what had happened, she asked all three boys to stay in for recess. She pleaded with them not to tell anybody what they had seen on her phone; she didn’t want to lose her job. The boys agreed, but they had some conditions. At first, it was mostly kid stuff: they told her they’d keep her secret if she let them stay in at recess and play in the gym. She called them her computer helpers so they could be excused from class. They made her buy them pizza.

Other students were starting to notice the unusual intimacy McLaren had cultivated with a few of the boys in her class. Hazel was one of them. (Hazel is not her real name; I’ve used pseudonyms to protect the identities of the kids in this story.) While the other students goofed around, Hazel usually did her worksheets, and yet she was failing McLaren’s class. Once, she clashed with one of the boys in the teacher’s fan club. He had splashed ink on her arm; in return, she’d dipped her hand in red paint and slapped it on his white T-shirt. Her mom, Melissa, received a call from the principal stating both students were to blame. But McLaren only punished Hazel, banning her from class for a week and sending her to the library instead.

In fall 2013, Hazel complained to another teacher, who arranged a meeting with McLaren, Hazel, the principal and the union steward in the school library. Hazel told them that McLaren was friends with students on social media and that they carried on inappropriate conversations in class. It wasn’t that she felt McLaren was picking on her, Hazel said, but rather that she was showing extreme favouritism to a group of boys. McLaren sat silently for most of the meeting.

The principal and the union steward later told McLaren to unfriend her students. They gave her a copy of the Ontario College of Teachers’ professional advisory on the use of electronic communication and social media. McLaren claimed that she had let a few male students borrow her phone to look at an educational app. She maintained that the boys must have installed Snapchat and added themselves to her Facebook during that time. She hadn’t noticed because, as she later claimed, she has “like 1,000 friends, so….” She deleted the boys on Facebook, but left Snapchat on her phone. “I guess I should have removed it,” she later said. “I didn’t really understand it yet.”

Within a few weeks, the boys increased their demands. They asked her to send nudes over Snapchat. McLaren didn’t know what to do. She thought she’d been helping the boys by showering them with attention. When the dynamic turned sexual, she became a victim in her own head. She believed that the boys were in control, that she was trapped. And so, in October 2013, she sexted a student for the first time, sending a 15-year-old named Aaron photos of her breasts. In return, he sent her shots of his erect penis. “I did it ’cuz I was stupid,” she later said.

Over the next few months, her phone pinged constantly with Snapchats from the boys—so much so that her husband demanded to know if she was cheating. In the spring of 2014, he left her for good. McLaren was devastated. She resumed her heavy drinking. By the end of the school year, she was consuming a full bottle of wine every night after work.

As she drank, she’d log onto Snapchat and Tinder, messaging young men. She often arranged to meet them for hookups and usually didn’t bother to check their ages. Her sister Katie expressed concern over Jaclyn’s escapades, but McLaren was high on the attention. Among the boys she met online were a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old. She sent one a photo of her breasts and the other a nude Snapchat video of her simulating a sex act. Sometimes she protested and worried she’d lose her job. But she kept hitting send.

McLaren also continued sexting her students. Fuelled by alcohol and the ache of her decimated marriage, she willingly and enthusiastically pursued the boys. In 2014, she sent two of her teenage blackmailers photos of her bare breasts and genitals. Instagram shots from the school’s graduation show McLaren sandwiched between two boys, glowing. One of them makes an explicit hand sign called the “shocker”—a crude reference to sexual penetration. Her caption on Instagram read, “Why must they always do that with their hands?” She ends it with an emoji of a monkey covering its eyes.

In the fall of 2014, she picked up a six-pack of beer and drove two of her former students, Leo and Joseph—then in Grade 9 at a nearby high school—to the Trans Canada Trail in Tweed. There, shielded by trees, they downed a few, then returned to her car, where she kissed and fondled both boys. Finally, McLaren took them back to the trail. She performed oral sex first on Leo, then Joseph. It was the boys’ first sexual encounter.

She later took Joseph back to the trail and fellated him again; he sent her a photo of his penis, which she eagerly accepted. She also took Leo out in her car a second time and performed oral sex on him; DNA testing later confirmed the presence of his semen on her back seat.

Both boys bragged about their encounters at school. Girls rolled their eyes about the boys’ claims they “got with” the teacher. Hazel told her mother she thought McLaren was “doing them”—even if she didn’t quite understand what that involved. “I wasn’t even imagining that what Hazel said could have ever been true,” says her mother, Melissa. “Not for a minute.”

McLaren chose the cool boys—the ones who could give her the validation she craved. She was drawn to kids who were like her: sporty boys who liked hockey and hunting, country boys who went stunt riding on tricked-out ATVs. Their social media is rife with family and fishing photos, pictures of their hunting gear, their dogs, their guns. They were shaggy-haired and gawky, muscular but coltish—clearly boys, not men.

Her now-former students passed her photos around, collecting and trading them like Pokémon cards. They’d send them to each other and show them off at parties. By fall of 2015, she was sexting with at least eight teenagers. Six were former students, and she met the other two on Tinder. Later, she claimed not to have known they were underage.

McLaren invited Aaron, one of the first boys she had messaged on Snapchat, to her house just after he turned 18. They had sex that night. These kinds of risky sexual encounters gave McLaren an adrenalin rush, a confidence boost, a thrill that coke and alcohol couldn’t provide. She never thought of the boys as victims or considered the harm she might be inflicting—in her mind, the students were willing partners who desired her, chased her, seduced her.

McLaren transferred to Harry J. Clarke Public School in Belleville in 2015. She continued her sexual relations with ex-students at her former school Photograph by Daniel Neuhaus

In 2015, McLaren transferred to a position at Harry J. Clarke Public School in Belleville so she could teach French immersion. She’d curbed her daily drinking, but she was still distraught over her failed marriage. She frequently brought up her divorce in class and often had nightmares about her breakup. She also continued to favour the boys.

At a memorial service for her grandfather in 2016, McLaren burned her chest while lighting a fire and missed a week of school. When she returned, some of the boys in her Grade 7/8 split asked to see the wounds. She pulled down her shirt to show them. The boys hectored her for her social media handles, begging her to add them, but she refused. Whenever they asked, she just laughed.

On Valentine’s Day 2016, McLaren was inundated with texts from the boys. That day, Joseph’s parents started noticing text messages flashing across their son’s phone. They were disturbed. Why was their son repeatedly texting his former French teacher on Valentine’s Day? They grabbed his phone and began scrolling, quickly discovering the message chain between their son and McLaren. They figured out that Leo was also involved and called his parents. Both boys confessed everything.

Shaken, the families drove to the Central Hastings OPP detachment that day and reported McLaren. Police arrested McLaren at home the next day, seizing her iPhone and a memory stick. Her phone contained Tinder logs, Snapchat contacts and scores of sexts. Police laid charges involving four of the boys.

Over the following weeks, they met with students at elementary and high schools in Tweed and Belleville, using information from the boys who’d already come forward and McLaren’s phone to identify more possible victims. At least one of the boys lied to police when he was first questioned, denying everything. He told the truth later, after police returned with more evidence from other students who had confirmed his involvement.

Within a few weeks, four more boys had come forward. All told, there were eight known victims. McLaren was charged with multiple counts of sexual interference, exploitation of a minor, luring, invitation to sexual touching, making child pornography, making sexually explicit material available to a person under age 16 and sexual assault on a person under age 16—42 counts in all. She made her first court appearance on February 19, 2016, where she sat in the prisoner’s box in shackles and a long black winter coat. Her parents and sister Katie pledged her $100,000 surety. Once she was released, she hugged her parents and sobbed. It was as if she couldn’t figure out what she’d done wrong.

The afternoon of McLaren’s court appearance, Hazel arrived home from school. “Guess what?” Melissa said to her daughter. “Ms. McLaren was arrested.” It took a minute for the significance to sink in: “Who is Ms. McLaren?” Melissa showed her the newspaper. A photo of a woman with dark hair and bunched-up cheeks stared back at her. It was Madame Jones. Relief washed over her. Finally, she thought. She’d been right all along.

Across town, other parents were having similar conversations with their children. One father, whose kids were McLaren’s students at Tweed, found out that she followed his children on Instagram. One of his kids had saved a screenshot of the “shocker” photo, thinking it was weird. Over in Belleville, a woman I’ll call Karen, whose daughter, Riley, had McLaren for Grade 7 French, cried as she told her daughter what had happened. Karen was horrified at the thought of McLaren walking the same halls at Harry J. Clarke as her daughter and son.

In the days after McLaren’s arrest, staff at Harry J. Clarke brought in counsellors for any student who wanted to talk about what had happened. Riley was one of the few kids who went. She had trusted McLaren and considered her a friend. She was the cool teacher. Just like she had at Tweed Elementary, McLaren often abandoned her lesson plans at Harry J. Clarke. When the weather was nice, she’d take her class outside, where they’d all sit and chat. She was always ­laughing and joking. Riley felt betrayed and confused when the news broke. Teachers were supposed to be safe.

She wanted to know more: how it happened, why it happened, whether the other teachers knew or suspected. But teachers were advised to keep quiet about the charges. In mid-March 2016, the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board issued a detailed statement, called “Information to support school communities during police investigations or traumatic situations.” While it made no direct reference to McLaren, it provided tips for responding to students. Teachers shouldn’t initiate conversations with students. If students brought up the investigation in class, teachers should validate their emotions and redirect the conversation. “If parents are asking about prevention education for their children,” stated the advisory, “reassure them that the Revised Health and Physical Education Curriculum focuses on building skills that are developmentally appropriate.”

For some parents, this wasn’t enough. Riley’s mother told me that she interpreted the teachers’ silence at Harry J. Clarke as a decision to stand by McLaren. Hazel’s mom was furious that her daughter had brought this up two years ­earlier—and the school had done nothing. Her youngest son, a Grade 5 student at Tweed, became afraid of attending school. He faked headaches, deliberately vomited, made his nose bleed. He told his mom that he was scared a teacher would snatch him.

McLaren didn’t seem to comprehend the damage she’d done. Most of her family accepted her version of events: that the boys had blackmailed her, and she’d simply made a series of bad choices. While they waited on evidence disclosure, McLaren was under house arrest, forced to stay at her parents’ house or Katie’s place down the street, and not go anywhere except for personal training sessions, medical appointments and psychiatric assessments. When Katie was married in the fall of 2016, Jaclyn was permitted to attend and served as a bridesmaid.

A few months later, as the digital evidence against McLaren mounted, the court agreed to amalgamate her 42 original charges into seven that summarized her crimes. She pleaded guilty in March 2017. Her lawyer likely believed that if she spared her victims from having to testify at trial, a judge might look more favourably on her. Still, she squabbled over some of the dates of her offences, trying to convince the Crown that they took place later, when the boys were older.

Privately, McLaren vented to her psychiatrist that the local media had been horrible to her and that nothing printed in the papers had been true. Her sister Tara believed she was too trusting and compassionate; Katie worried that Jaclyn wouldn’t be able to handle prison. Two days after the guilty plea, Katie posted on Facebook: “Have you ever felt so small, in a world this big? Don’t throw stones when you live in a glass house. Bring people up, don’t try to drag them down.” Dozens of commenters sent heart emojis, telling her and her family to keep their chins up and ignore the haters. They were a lovely, ­beautiful family. They would get through this. People made mistakes all the time.

While male abusers are universally condemned as predatory, incidents involving female abusers are often treated as consensual. Many people in the community ­characterized the boys not as victims but as teenage horndogs who’d instigated the affairs. During ­McLaren’s interview for the court’s pre-sentencing report, the Crown recommended that she receive counselling as a sex offender. “Is that what I am then?” she asked. “I don’t know.” She trailed off. “I just made mistakes.”

When discussing that first sexual encounter with Leo and Joseph on the Trans Canada Trail, she said, “It didn’t stop, and I guess I didn’t say no.” For most of the interview, she didn’t acknowledge that she’d done her students any harm. She insisted that she cared about every student she’d ever had. “I don’t want to have messed them up, but I don’t know if it will affect them long-term,” she said.

The repercussions had already started. At school, most students in their grades knew who the victims were, or thought they did. The boys and their siblings were pestered for information. In a victim impact statement to the court, one boy’s mother wrote that her child had become more isolated from his family. He was engaging in risky behaviour, including drinking and smoking. Once word got out that he was “one of those boys,” as his mother put it, he also began to get in trouble at school.

Another mom told the court that since the first summer after McLaren sent her son nudes, his behaviour had changed: he lost interest in sports and school, he was moody, he was ­defiant. Suddenly they knew why. After word got out that he was involved in the case, he started getting suspended on a regular basis. His parents told the court they often had no idea where he was, and that he wouldn’t speak to them—about what had happened or anything else. She thought about it every day. What else could she have done? How would he treat women in the future? And why hadn’t one person noticed the bizarre relationship between her son and Jaclyn McLaren?

McLaren, shown here with her lawyer, Pieter Kort, pleaded guilty to seven charges, including sexual interference and exploitation. She was sentenced to two years in federal prison Photograph by CP Images

On May 19, 2017, shortly before 9:30 a.m., McLaren returned to Belleville’s Quinte ­Courthouse for her sentencing. Her family—­including her parents, her sister Katie, her brother-in-law, and several aunts and uncles—took up two rows of benches in the small courtroom. Jaclyn and her mother both wore pink. Her case was not the first of the morning, so she sat and waited, her round face set in heavy makeup, as Justice Stephen Hunter moved through more trivial matters.

McLaren appeared calm, taking swigs from a blue plastic water bottle and whispering to her sister. At her feet, a large black purse bulged open like a mouth. She’d filled it with documents, and a giant zip-lock bag full of cosmetics, medication and other personal items. It was almost as if she didn’t realize she was on her way to prison.

Shortly after, Riley and her mother, Karen, showed up, along with one of Riley’s friends, a Grade 7 student who’d had McLaren as a teacher the previous year. Karen had hoped seeing McLaren sentenced would help bring closure to her and her daughter. At one point, after the proceedings had started and McLaren sat at the defence table, she turned around and gave them a toothy grin. Karen was disgusted. Did McLaren think they were there to support her?

Justice Hunter sentenced McLaren to two years in federal prison, to be served at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. As the bailiff moved to handcuff McLaren, she took one last swig from her water bottle and applied some lip gloss. For a brief moment she seemed confused, grabbing her purse, moving like a woman who was going to the store or to work. Another bailiff handed her a plastic tray so she could empty the bag’s contents. She stuck out her arms, one wrist wrapped in a coiled silver bracelet. It would have to go. Her earrings, too.

She remained dry-eyed as the handcuffs finally clicked on, staring ahead, the bearing of someone who was somewhere else, or at least pretending to be. Her mom cried out: “I love you, Jackie!” Her daughter’s head turned briefly. “Bye.” Forward again. “I love you, too.”