Teacher-Student Affair Goes Wrong: The Knoxville Love Triangle

When you send your child to school, you expect them to be in a safe, comfortable environment. You trust their teachers to take care of them. But when you put your child’s education in the hands of a teacher for eight hours a day, you’re pretty much trusting them with your kid’s life and well-being. Normally, teachers are sweet, friendly, nurturing individuals with kind hearts and pure intentions.

Erin McLean / Eric McLean, Erin McLean / Sean Powell / Eric McLean.

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Not all teachers have an attendance list in one hand and an apple on their desk. Some of them have a pencil in their mouth and sex with students in their heads. Unfortunately, every group has a sour apple. A seemingly selfless line of work masks bad people; they could be police, doctors, pastors, or in this case, teachers. When Mr. and Mrs. Powell sent their adopted son to high school, they thought he was in good hands.

A Love Triangle

In reality, Sean Powell was being manipulated by his attractive English teacher. He got caught up in a deathly love triangle. This is a story of a disturbed wife and mother with extreme psychological issues from her childhood (which were obviously never addressed). After growing resentful of her family, Erin McLean found comfort in one of her students.

A family portrait of the McLean’s.

Source: Tumblr

After going through his file, Erin found out that Sean Powell had a tough upbringing as well, and she was immediately drawn to him. The flirting quickly turned intimate. The main issue here is that this was an inappropriate teacher-student relationship. But Erin was a married woman. Did a jealous husband take things too far? Or did a devious teacher take advantage of her student and hurt her family in the process?

That’s Mrs. McLean, to You

Knoxville, Tennessee, is a town of about 180,000 residents. In the Bible Belt, it’s a conservative community with various churches and a love of sports. On Cochre Avenue, 29-year-old Erin McLean was getting ready for her first day as an English teacher at Always High School.

Erin and Eric are sitting at home.

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But McLean didn’t exactly look like a teacher, and she didn’t dress like one either. She showed up to school in tight miniskirts and high heels. She was certainly a very attractive lady and bright too. She had earned her master’s degree in education and was finally accomplishing her life-long dream of becoming a teacher.

Distractingly Good Looks

However, her good looks and revealing clothing made it difficult for some students to focus during English class. She didn’t behave like a teacher, often laughing with the students and having inappropriate conversations with them. She wasn’t that “cool” teacher who was trying to be relatable; Erin McLean truly enjoyed the attention from her male students.

Erin and Eric take a selfie before a night out.

Source: Pinterest

She was “touchy-feely” with the boys, knowing her method was arousing. There was one boy in particular who paid close attention to her: 17-year-old Sean Powell. Sean was a popular kid; girls liked him, and his friends called him “the life of the party.” He was always kind to everyone.

Forbidden Love

Erin McLean and Sean Powell started flirting with each other, and that was her first mistake. After that, a series of events caused a rippling domino effect that ended in death. Most teachers would set boundaries around this sort of thing and put a stop to it before it went any further.

A high school portrait of Sean Powell.

Source: Pinterest

But McLean thought she was above all that; as we mentioned, she wasn’t exactly the responsible adult in the situation. It didn’t take long for rumors to start swirling about a mutual infatuation. Sean shared his teacher’s love of English literature. He loved to write poetry and loved to share it with Erin.

Childhood Trauma Brought Them Together

So, how did this all start? Erin was asked to go through some students’ files and look into their backgrounds as part of the school faculty. When she came across Sean’s record, she discovered his troubling upbringing. His abusive, drug-addicted mother worked as a prostitute and couldn’t take care of him.

A disturbed teenager covers his head with his hands.

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After she gave him up, Sean spent his younger years in the foster care system before finally being adopted into a good home. Erin didn’t have the most stable childhood herself. After her parents split up, she lived with relatives who passed her around. No one particularly wanted her.

Sleeping With Her Student

Erin saw Sean as her soul mate. She felt like she understood him and believed he could meet her needs and desires. Erin McLean crossed boundaries that she should have set the day she decided to teach children. Instead of steering clear of high school boys, Erin began a sexual affair with Sean.

The silhouette of a couple embracing at sunset.

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Erin wasn’t a stupid girl. She knew her actions were wrong, but she didn’t really care. Not only was she committing statutory rape, but Erin was married to a man named Eric McLean, a musician. She was drawn to Eric because of his artistic sensibility. The pair grew up in Knoxville and met when Erin was sixteen.

High School Sweethearts

Erin loved that Eric had a stable family life. His parents weren’t divorced, and he didn’t grow up with stress and drama. Erin never knew a happy family, so Eric’s stability gave her reassurance for the future. By age 19, Erin got married and had a baby. Shortly after, they had a second kid.

A picture of Eric, Erin, and their first baby.

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The strain of parenthood took its toll and weakened the marriage. Erin worked days while Eric worked nights, so neither of them spent much time together. Eric was part of a band, keeping him out late and away from his family.

Feeling Like a Teenager, Again

Meanwhile, Erin was feeling resentful about the lack of attention. She was angry and felt frustrated that she had married so young and missed out on the best days of her life. She watched all her friends have fun and enjoy their twenties while she was home changing diapers.

An exterior view of Austin East High School.

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So, Erin was dealing with some intense FOMO and wasn’t happy in her marriage. But once she met Sean, Erin felt like she was getting a second chance at her youth. She felt like a teenager again and was certainly acting like one.

The Only Logical Solution

Usually, an unhappy marriage leaves two options: get divorced or work on your relationship. Erin didn’t want to do either; she had something else in mind. She thought it would be a good idea if she and Eric had an open marriage.

Two wedding rings are attached to a necklace.

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Eric was not thrilled about an open marriage, but he was so in love with Erin and was willing to do anything to keep her. He reluctantly agreed to an open marriage, desperate to keep Erin happy. Sean’s mother noticed a change in her son’s behavior. He seemed to be distant and distracted.

So, There Is This Girl…

Sean told his mom that he liked a new girl, but he conveniently (and obviously) left out the part that it was his teacher. Erin didn’t hold back when it came to her intimate relationship with her student. She knew it was against the law, but she didn’t see what the problem was.

A picture of Sean.

Source: Facebook

She was driven by her own unfulfilled desires and ultimately betrayed her family and her responsibilities as a teacher. Erin thought this romance could go on endlessly. It was like she was living in a fantasy with no concern for her husband or her teenage lover.

Time for Rehab

In November, Sean Powell was caught with alcohol on school grounds. He was expelled immediately. His furious parents were so angry with him and sent him to a 28-day rehab program. Erin was devastated. She would text him endlessly, begging him to come home to be with her.

An exterior view of a rehabilitation center.

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Sean was under his teacher’s spell and agreed. He checked himself out of rehab and went straight back to his affair with Erin. Sean’s parents, on the other hand, wouldn’t allow him to come home. They weren’t going to tolerate or enable his dangerous behavior.

Moving In With His Teacher

After his parents kicked him out of the house, Sean was homeless, forced to sleep on the street for a few nights. Naturally, Erin came to his rescue. She asked her husband if Sean could live in his van space. She made it seem like he was just some poor troubled kid who needed help.

A homeless kid is wandering the streets at night.

Source: YouTube

Eric, who was completely oblivious to the situation, agreed. He unknowingly created a love nest for his wife and the teenager. But betraying her family wasn’t the extent of her calculating behavior. She didn’t even seem to have Sean’s best interest at heart.

A Teacher’s Selfish Desires

Sure, she probably convinced herself that she cared about Sean Powell, but she didn’t. Instead of encouraging him to stay in rehab and get the help he needed, she was a terrible influence on her high school lover, like a compassionate teacher. She never wanted what was best for him; she wanted what was best for herself.

A view of the neighborhood.

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What would have been best for Sean was to complete his rehab stint. The fact that Erin pressured him to come home to her further proves that she only cared about herself and her own selfish desires.

The Best of Both Worlds

Erin was satisfied with her whirlwind affair with Sean but had no intention of leaving her husband. She wanted a lover and a husband – the best of both worlds. She needed Eric for security as he earned money and took care of the kids. Still, Erin dared to bring her lover into their home. You know what they say: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

A portrait of Erin in court.

Source: YouTube

Poor Eric must have been amazingly naïve to allow this man to live with his family. Or perhaps he was dealing with intense denial. Eventually, Eric noticed the chemistry between his wife and her student, and it seemed like neither one of them was trying to hide it.

The Oblivious Husband

In Eric’s defense, why would he think that his wife was sleeping with a student? They were in an open relationship, so he knew she was sleeping around; he just assumed it was with a grown man, not this drug-using high school kid. This wasn’t your average dirty affair; it was a crime.

A picture of Eric in court.

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Erin started ignoring her own sons and devoted all her time and attention to Sean. Eric finally kicked Sean out. When Sean turned 18, his romance with Erin continued. He told all his friends about his sexual conquest and loved to brag about sleeping with a teacher.

Heart-Shattering Sight

Eric’s suspicions about his wife intensified, and he could no longer hide his suspicions. One afternoon, Eric followed his wife to the door of his van space. Behold: Sean stepped out, and Eric watched him make out with his wife and then disappear inside the van space. Needless to say, Eric was infuriated.

Eric sits in the courtroom.

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Fuming with jealously, Eric decided to confront his wife later that evening. Erin blamed the whole thing on Eric, claiming it was his fault for “neglecting her needs.” Eric tried to settle his wife down, but she said, “you’re just going to have to deal with it.” The affair deepened. Erin even locked her own kids out of the house so she could have sex with Sean.

The Rumors at School

At a certain point, some teachers and several students heard that Erin was involved with Sean, but none of them said a word. Meanwhile, Erin and her lover got a little more comfortable and made their relationship obvious. PDA wasn’t the least of it.

An exterior view of the High School building.

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One Friday night, Erin thought it would be fun to go out drinking with her underaged lover. While they were out, the lovebirds bumped into Eric, who was hanging out with some friends. While her husband was standing right there, Erin leaned over and gave Sean a passionate kiss.

Mean Spirited

Erin enjoyed humiliating her submissive husband. As Eric remained the passive spouse, Sean became cockier and overly confident. Erin was really cruel. It’s one thing to have an affair, but rubbing it in your husband’s face is a whole new level. Evidently, Eric’s friends completely judged Erin for planting one on a high school kid in front of everyone.

A current portrait of Erin.

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But Erin wasn’t the only one tearing Eric’s heart apart. Sean was dealing with all that high school stuff and coped by deflecting. He definitely wasn’t the kindest to Eric.

Sticks and Stones

And by unkind, I mean harsh. Do you know those folks who say cruel things to others just to make themselves feel better? These are the people who are clearly lacking in self-esteem. If hurting others is a way of dealing with your issues, you’re only going to develop bigger problems.

Eric talks during a televised interview.

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Sean was one of those people who knew exactly what to say to really damage a person. He was well-aware of what made people tick. More often than not, Sean deflected his pain onto Eric, constantly making fun of him. It was only a matter of time before he took it too far.

Caught Red-Handed

Hours after their friendly encounter, Eric went home and found Erin and Sean in bed together. Eric just closed the door and walked out without saying anything. It’s a pretty odd response for a guy spending the night on the couch because a teenager took over his bed.

Feet are sticking out from under the bedsheets.

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He may have looked like he was keeping it together, but deep down, Eric’s rage continued to grow. He decided it was time to end the affair for good. Eric wrote what appeared to be a suicide note, explaining how he took his shotgun from his father.

Date Night… but Not With You…

“I have thought about suicide many times… I have nothing left to look forward to,” Eric wrote, but luckily, he didn’t have the guts to shoot himself. On Saturday, March 10, 2007, Eric thought his marriage was finally getting better when Erin got all dressed up and told him it was “date night.”

A man is about to write on a sheet of paper.

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Finally, Eric felt a little hint of joy, just to be let down once again. Erin then told Eric that her date was with Sean, not with him. This was the final straw; Eric had enough. “Don’t come back!” Eric yelled out. “That’s fine by me,” Erin said. “There’s nothing here for me anyway.”

Call Me Daddy!

Suddenly, Sean walked through the door as if he owned the place. That’s when Erin decided to tell her husband she was leaving with Sean and taking the kids with her. Consumed by rage, Eric went and found the shotgun that he planned on killing himself with earlier. He had reached his limit.

A portrait of Sean Powell.

Source: Pinterest

Sean laughed at him like he often did. The teenager took things too far when he said, “in two weeks, they’ll be calling me Daddy.” In Eric’s defense, he had been unexpectedly calm throughout this entire ordeal. But when Sean made that comment, it was a huge trigger. It was like the high school boy was threatening Eric’s role as a father.

Not the Pushover Husband Anymore

Sean was always rude to Eric, so none of this was new behavior. Sadly, Eric was used to being treated this way. Sean thought he was making fun of his lover’s husband like he normally did. He didn’t realize that the triggering comment was the last straw for the submissive husband.

A mugshot of Eric.

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The reckless teen had no idea what his words would prompt. As Erin’s husband and lover were in this heated confrontation, a gunshot rang out. Erin, in complete shock, called the police: “Oh my God, he shot him. Sean Powell, my student.”

You Have the Right to Remain Silent

A neighbor went over to Erin to console her. But Eric just walked away and into the house. The neighbor peeked into Erin’s car and saw Sean slumped over with a hole in his head. The next morning, Eric was arrested when he was found walking along a train track, desperate and shocked.

Handcuffs in two hands together.

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The distressed man was charged with first-degree murder. When the investigation began, Erin took her children and left. She was stunned by these tragic events and wanted to stay as far away from her husband as she possibly could.

And the Trial Begins

Eighteen months after that fatal encounter, Eric went on trial for the murder of Sean Powell. The courtroom was packed since that trial was the talk of the town. Locals couldn’t get enough of this story. The student-teacher aspect of the murder was juicy. People thought the trial might bring up scandalous family secrets that might explain what had happened.

A view inside the courtroom.

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It was clear that things escalated quickly, but Eric said the murder was an accident. “I’ll take that gun and shove it up your ass,” was what he told the court Sean said. He was out of his right mind and had no idea what he was doing, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t even believe it.”

The Jury Bought It

None of the jurors believed that Eric McLean deliberately killed Sean Powell. Instead, he was found guilty of reckless homicide, a crime that was punished with a measly 90-day jail sentence. If he had been found guilty of first-degree murder, the consequences would have been very different: most likely life in jail without the possibility of parole or even the death penalty.

An attorney talks to the jury.

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Because of his time in the slammer, he earned credits that allowed him an early release after spending just 71 days behind bars. Maybe his circumstances pulled the jury’s heartstrings, but from the beginning, it looked like a clear manslaughter situation to me. The short sentence shouldn’t disregard the fact that a teenager was killed.

Words Can Kill

Sean Powell was an impressionable young man who an older woman manipulated. He had no control over his troubling past or the things that happened to him as a child. However, he was responsible for what he chose to do about it.

Sean Powell’s mother sits in court.

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He wasn’t a poor little foster kid anymore; Sean was a young adult who needed to be accountable for his own actions. Being rude isn’t a nice trait, but it’s also not a crime. But things people say can have long-lasting effects. In this case, Sean’s words cost him his life.

Some People Never Learn…

Erin got another teaching job in Nashville, and surprise, she had another affair with a student. Nonetheless, prosecutors concluded that Erin didn’t commit a crime because Sean Powell was 18. But Erin didn’t get off that easy. The teacher spent 95 days behind bars for running away with her children and skipping mandatory court appearances in the custody proceedings.

A barbed-wire fence.

Photo by John Greim/LightRocket/Getty Images

Erin McLean’s deep-seated daddy issues and pathological need for attention led to tragedy. Her blatant disregard for anyone else resulted in the death of an impressionable teenager caught in the crossfire of a failing marriage.

Think About What You’ve Done in There

I personally think she deserves more, but I’m no prosecutor. We can only hope those 95 days were enough time for Erin McLean to think about what she did and choose a better path. But I wouldn’t bet on it, considering she thought sleeping with a student was acceptable behavior. She appeared completely unapologetic about the affair.

A picture of Erin in court.

Source: YouTube

However, Erin has since admitted that she regretted her relationship with Sean Powell and explained that she needs to live with that mistake for the rest of her life. Whether or not she thinks she did anything wrong, there is no denying the fact that Sean Powell would still be alive if his teacher never got involved with him.

Defined by That Teacher-Student Affair

On October 18, 2008, Erin opened up to The Knoxville News Sentinel in an interview where she admitted, “It’s simply not possible for me to live in Knoxville. I am so hated there. I cannot have a life there, in the community that I loved.” I mean, that’s what happens when you sleep with a student.

Erin sits in the courtroom.

Source: The Knoxville News Sentinel

She earned that reputation when she chose to flirt with her high school student and then have sex with him for her own selfish desires. It sounds like a good reason to shun somebody. Plus, the fact that the love triangle ended in murder really didn’t help her case.

Making the Same Mistakes

While talking to The Knoxville News Sentinel, Erin did claim that her relationship with Sean Powell was “the biggest mistake of my life, and a regret I’ll carry for the rest of my life.” I’m sure she feels guilty and at least partly responsible. But it would be easier for me to believe her if she hadn’t proceeded to sleep with yet another student.

A view of a high school hallway.

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Seriously? The moral of this story is literally don’t sleep with your students. It is baffling how some people never learn their lesson. It didn’t end well last time; what makes her think this student-teacher affair would have a fairy-tale ending this time?

Blaming the Victim…

Erin managed to shift the blame to her teen lover in her true narcissistic fashion even after his death. “I’m not saying he was a bad guy,” she noted. “If he were alive today, I would still be his friend, but he was manipulative and troubled, and absolutely, it was a huge mistake.”

Eric sits on the stand, looking at evidence in court.

Source: The Knoxville News Sentinel

Not to defend Sean Powell’s intimidating behavior and bad choices, but he never got the chance to learn from this situation. He was a high school student with a rough past, and Erin used it to her advantage − whether it was a conscious decision or not.

Mrs. McLean Is to Blame

Anyone with a moral code knows that certain lines can never be crossed. Many teachers make a point not to be in a room alone with a student. Sean Powell was a rude, impulsive teenager; the frontal lobe of his brain wasn’t even fully developed yet. Erin was the grown-up in the situation.

A portrait of Erin.

Source: Tumblr

Instead of stopping the flirtation immediately, she gave her Sean alcohol and convinced him to leave rehab. She was the manipulative one, and it’s funny how she’s trying to spin this around on a high school boy who isn’t here to defend himself – because he died on her watch.

Eric Should Have Been a Man

As for Eric, sure, he got off easy in court, but the situation should never have escalated like that. I know he comes across as the poor, submissive husband, but like everyone else involved, he is an adult who can make his own decisions. It was his choice to stay in that broken marriage instead of standing up for himself.

A picture of Erin and Eric.

Source: Facebook

Eric tried to hold it together. I can only imagine how he felt watching his wife with this student not only in their home but in their bed. But he didn’t do anything about it. Bottling things up and allowing people to treat you poorly can create a breaking point. In this case, a fatal one.

Forever Young

Sean Powell was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He got dragged into his teacher’s toxic relationship and ended up dead. He was collateral damage to a much darker family dynamic. Sure, he was rude and made triggering comments, but he didn’t deserve to die.

A picture of Sean Powell.

Source: Pinterest

Sean acted like your typical teenager: He made fun of people, made bad choices, and tried to find his own identity. People make mistakes and grow from them all the time. But Sean will never have the opportunity to learn from the relationship and make better choices in the future because he has no future.