A Colorado teenager whose alleged romance with a female teacher sparked a scandal that rocked a charter school said Tuesday that he initially tried to protect the woman's job and her marriage to the school's principal.
"I didn't want her to end up losing her job. I figured I had a lot less to lose than she did," Tommy Clay, who was 17 at the time, told TODAY anchor Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview.
Carrie McCandless, 29 at the time, did end up losing her job as a social-studies teacher and now faces two felony criminal charges over allegations she had improper sexual contact with Tommy and supplied him with alcohol during an overnight school trip in October she chaperoned.
The Denver-area school district's school board president, David Mundy Sr., was forced to resign amid charges that he tried to keep a lid on the alleged affair to protect McCandless and her husband, Chris, principal of the Brighton Charter School.
"We met with Mr. Mundy ... He just keep continuing to say, 'We need to take Tommy out. I have to protect a friendship here' — he was good friends with the teacher and her husband — 'I need to save a marriage,' " said Sheree Clay, Tommy's mother. "It was things like that. It made Tommy feel very, very guilty."
Mundy, who is charged with failure to report child abuse and tampering with witnesses, never called police, a criminal complaint alleges. Instead, a local television reporter contacted authorities after rumors of the alleged affair began circulating throughout the community.
'It's over if it ever comes out'
Tommy, appearing nervous and cutting his answers short in mid-sentence, told Lauer his relationship with McCandless took an unexpected turn in early October when she began planning an overnight, co-ed field trip to a cabin. The flirtation included a barrage of text messages, including 76 in a single day, he said.
"I met her in summer school. Things just developed from there. We started out as friends," Tommy said. "She was someone I could really talk to and relate to. Then I guess we got into it a little more. We got a little more intimate ... We didn't openly discuss it. It was more of, 'It's over if it ever comes out.' "
According to news reports about the arrest affidavit, the relationship was reported to McCandless' husband and Mundy when another teacher became suspicious and found notes between McCandless and Tommy that she discarded in a ladies' restroom. The relationship allegedly included kissing and close body contact, but there was no allegation of intercourse made.
The arrest affidavit alleges that during the overnight trip, which McCandless chaperoned alone, she allegedly provided Tommy with Jack Daniels bourbon and cigarettes, and the pair engaged in “everything but sex.” Students who witnessed the behavior began talking about it at school, and teachers also started noticing that something was different between the teacher and the student.
Mark and Sheree Clay were initially inclined to respect their son's wishes to keep the matter quiet, but that changed when they realized that some people did not think that intimacy between a female teacher and a male student was all that bad. The couple say they overheard one person say that for a teenage boy, sexual contact with a teacher was akin to climbing Mount Everest.
Teen wanted to protect teacher
"At first, we were honoring Tommy's wishes. We didn't do anything," Sheree Clay said. "We didn't call the police. Tommy was adamant about protecting the teacher."
"I told Mrs. McCandless I would take the fall for it,” Tommy explained. “I didn't want her to end up losing her job.”
Through her attorney, McCandless declined comment. Fired by the school district following her November arrest, McCandless is reportedly negotiating a plea bargain with prosecutors.
As for Tommy, the episode initially brought him a lot of "high fives" and "more respect" from his male friends, he told Lauer. Girls, however, became distant and Tommy began having trouble getting dates, he said.
"The whole thing turned on him like it was his fault," Sheree Clay said. "We send our kids to school to be taught ... It's just wrong that a teacher would do that. It shouldn't be acceptable."
The family's attorney, Gary Fielder, added, "We are talking about an older person in a position of power and responsibility manipulating a child into thinking that this child wanted sexual contact."
McCandless is charged with sexual assault of a child by a person in a position of trust and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. She is due back in court April 24.
— John Springer, TODAY contributor, and news reports