In the summer of 2004, Florida teacher Debra Lafave began to have a sexual relationship with one of her students. She was 24; he was 14.
By the time she was arrested, the story had become international news — partly because publicized female teacher sex scandals were relatively rare at the time, and partly because Lafave was a tall, statuesque blonde.
The details were lurid: The boy told police officers in Temple Terrace, Florida, that he had sex with Lafave three times in four days, according to court documents. One of those times was allegedly in a car while his 15-year-old cousin drove them around. He also said she performed a sex act on him multiple times, including during one encounter at her home.
In November 2006, Lafave pleaded guilty in Hillsborough County court to two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior. In court, she offered her “deepest apologies” to the boy and his family and said she was “deeply remorseful.” She also disclosed that she was undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder.
“My greatest regret would probably be the fact that I put this young man through this,” she said in court. She was sentenced to three years house arrest and seven years probation and was required to register as a sex offender.
Fifteen years later, well-publicized teacher sex scandals are much more common — and when Lafave stumbles across news stories of other teacher arrests, they dredge up old feelings of guilt and dread.
“It triggers her,” says a source close to the 39-year-old Lefave. “That whole episode of her life is like a bad dream. It’s part of her life story, a chapter she wants to forget. But she’s reminded of it every time she sees another story of another teacher who did the same thing.”
“Her heart always goes out to everyone involved,” the source continues. “Obviously the students, but also the teacher. She of all people realizes that one dumb decision when you’re 24 can follow you for the rest of your life. She’s a different person now, but her past follows her every day.”
Lafave is still constantly recognized in the Tampa area. “We’d go to the mall, and people just stare,” her friend, Joe Zuniga, told PEOPLE last year. “She looks the exact same. She still gets hate mail about it. She hates the attention.”
Zuniga, a Latin recording artist, has known LaFave for more than a decade — and she cooperated with him in the publication of a book about her life, Debra Lafave: A Crown of Beauty for Ashes. The self-published book is sympathetic to his friend, who Zuniga says has grown both spiritually and emotionally since the scandal.
“She’s a completely different person when she was when she was 24,” Zuniga said. “She has grown up a lot. She has become a Christian, and she’s a great mom. She knows it will always be there, but she focuses on her life now. It’s very normal.”
Lafave lives in a modest 3-bedroom home in a small Tampa suburb. She had twin boys in 2011, but the relationship with the father didn’t last. She recently got married again and goes by Debra Williams. As a registered sex offender, she is required to check in with the state regularly to give her whereabouts. She works jobs that don’t require her to be in contact with minors.
Zuniga says that Lafave understands the gravity of what she did in 2004. “She makes no excuses for what she did,” he says. “She has always owned up to it. She says, ‘If I could turn back time, I’d never would do that.’ She understands that she didn’t just negatively affect her life, but she hurt many other people, and she is still very sorry for it.”
Lafave has not responded to PEOPLE’s repeated requests for an interview over the years. “She understands the interest, but she’s not the type to keep talking about it,” says the source. “She lets her story speak for itself. She’d like to be a cautionary tale, so no one ever makes the same mistakes thats he made and goes through what she went through.”