‘Keep This Between Us’ explores how teachers groom students

Growing up in a small town in Texas, Cheryl Nichols adored her high school drama teacher. He was the kind of guy who read poetry and made her feel like she was the smartest girl in class. She relished his reading recommendations, and admired his killer taste in music.

“He was one of those teachers who was such a dear mentor,” Nichols, now 39, told The Post.

One night when she was just 16, he invited her and some of her classmates over to watch the ’90s comedy series “Strangers With Candy.” Later that evening, with his wife in another room and none of her classmates in sight, he leaned in to kiss her.

“I knew that it wasn’t just a flirtation. [I knew it was wrong] when it became an actual physical thing — it was at his house — a bunch of theater kids would go there periodically and he and his wife would have us over and they would cook for us. [His wife] was not aware of what was happening,” Nichols said, of her predator who was hiding in plain sight.

“Keep This Between Us” will premiere on Monday on Freeform.
Freeform

“I was in a relationship with my teacher and it started when I was 16,” Nichols admits in the trailer of her new four-part docuseries “Keep This Between Us,” out Monday on Freeform.

In it, she chronicles her relationship with the mentor she trusted — though never names him, she said, for legal reasons — who groomed her to keep their relationship a secret.

Cheryl Nichols documents her relationship with her high school teacher when she was just 16 years old in the new Freeform docuseries
Cheryl Nichols documents her relationship with her high school teacher when she was just 16 years old in the new Freeform docuseries “Keep This Between Us.”
Freeform

Dearest Pony: OK, first things first — never send an email with your real name on it. Remember, this is our little secret,” Nichols said, reading an email from her former teacher in the trailer for the docuseries.

“He just starts getting more and more sexual,” she says in the series, which sheds light on the prevalence of grooming in schools across the country and how common it is among young women and older male teachers.

Cheryl aims to seek answers from her classmates, teachers and family to put together the missing pieces of her past.
“It started very innocently. He’d complement me on my intelligence or the way I danced at the pep rally, and it just slowly turned into this kind of direct sexual innuendo conversation,” Nichols said.
Freeform

“My relationship with the teacher was a really delicate process and something that was seemingly deliberate on his part. It started very innocently. He’d complement me on my intelligence or the way I danced at the pep rally, and it just slowly turned into this kind of direct sexual innuendo conversation,” Nichols told The Post.

The glaring warning signs, she said, went overlooked because of her admiration for someone whom she thought was her mentor, a common misconception among many teenage girls who may experience similar grooming patterns, Nichols said.

Grooming is defined as a pattern of manipulative behaviors used most commonly as a tool to sexually abuse young children and teenagers, according to the nonprofit organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Abusers use manipulative tactics, targeting vulnerable victims to emotionally or physically separate them from loved ones by gaining their trust through attention, gifts or sharing “secrets,” according to RAINN. These tactics are most often used by someone in a victim’s closest circle — family, friends or authority figures like teachers, coaches or mentors and can be particularly difficult to recognize. That was the case for Nichols.

“He was just easy to be around and he enriched the parts of my life that needed enriching. I thought he hung the moon. I thought he was the greatest thing ever and I loved how much attention he would give me. I felt loved by him,” she says. “How could you not love a person that’s that invested in you?”

But really, that was a tactic, she said, that helped him gain her loyalty as their bond grew stronger, and, ultimately, kept their relationship isolated well into her early college years.

“[I thought,] ‘This person really loves me so he must not want to hurt me.’ It happened to me that [the relationship] was wrong the entire time, but I didn’t have the adult processing skills at that point to think about the consequences of this,” she said. “As a teenager, you don’t always have the awareness that you are being targeted or these things are happening to you. You’re looking for validation from all adults who are around you.”

Cheryl and her friend trace her harrowing past in the docuseries
Nichols interviewed her classmates, teachers and family to put together the missing pieces of her past and shed light on teenage grooming in schools.
Freeform

When Nichols, now a filmmaker, decided to move to Los Angeles in her early 20s to pursue her career, the relationship ended, she said. According to her, the teacher never faced any consequences over their relationship, but he was fired from a job after later having an inappropriate relationship with another student.

In the series, Nichols reaches out to the teacher for comment in a fraught moment.

“I haven’t spoken to him in about 10 years and I certainly haven’t seen him,” Nichols told The Post. “I was really nervous. I had been through a lot of therapy and I was really concerned about being drawn back into his web in a way, to be totally honest. I was afraid that he was going to be able to manipulate me.”

A scene from
In the series, Nichols reaches out to the teacher for comment in a fraught moment. “I was really nervous. I had been through a lot of therapy and I was really concerned about being drawn back into his web … I was afraid that he was going to be able to manipulate me.”
Freeform

And he was.

“He actually didn’t directly deny it, but skirted the conversation at every point and focused on the college aspect [of our relationship]said Nichols. He also denied the accusations against the producers of the series show. In some ways, she regrets reaching out to him.

“I would not advocate victims to confront the people who groomed them or their abusers — I would never advocate for a confrontational moment. There was a part of me that was naively jumping into it as a filmmaker and I had no idea what would happen to me. It’s been a long road.”

Nichols hopes “Keep This Between Us” will foster conversations about teenage grooming and help parents discuss some of the subtle warning signs with their kids, such as secretive relationships or teachers or those in positions of power overstepping boundaries.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time culturally thinking about what those subtle signs are. Just in general, the line is crossed if a teacher gets your number and is privately texting you. If you’re being complimented by your teacher in a way that makes you uncomfortable. There are immediate signs that you are being targeted,” she said.

“Keep This Between Us” premieres Monday at 9 pm on Freeform as a two-night event and will be available to stream on Hulu.

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