Former Kennebunk High School teacher Jill Lamontagne listens to closing arguments during her sexual abuse trial in York County Superior Court. A jury found Lamontagne not guilty on all charges. Credit: Shawn St. Hilaire | Seacoast Online

KENNEBUNK, Maine — The recent trial of a former Kennebunk High School teacher who used texts and phone calls to communicate with the student who accused her of sexual assault highlights the hazards of digital communication and the challenges school administrators are facing in trying to create policies.

A total of 96 text messages and 43 phone calls were entered into evidence in the trial of Jill Lamontagne, a former KHS health teacher acquitted last week on 14 charges of sexually assaulting the then 17-year-old student in the spring of 2017.

A 12-member jury took just 40 minutes to acquit the 30-year-old educator on all charges, however the case has highlighted the slippery slope of interpretation when it comes to text messaging. It has also put a spotlight on the struggle teachers face to reach students who are increasingly “plugged in” to technology and social messaging.

Prosecutors at the four-day trial used the text messages to try to prove a romantic relationship that turned sexual, while Lamontagne said the texts were intended to connect with a student who was at risk of not graduating, difficult to communicate with in person and confrontational.

[Ex-teacher acquitted of sex assault considers teaching again]

RSU 21 has a policy that forbids teachers from using their personal cell phones to text or call students and parents. The policy was entered into evidence in the trial, and read on the stand by Principal Sue Cressey, who said, “We have the expectation that our staff will comply.”

In an interview following the verdict, Lamontange said teachers texting with students at the high school was “normalized.” While one KHS teacher testified during the trial that she texted with students, others have said it is something they have done, too, as an effective way to reach students and parents quickly. Parents have chimed in, too, saying they appreciate being able to text or call a teacher on their personal cell phone if the need arises.

RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes says teachers “need to find a different way to reach students.” She said the district does not plan to review its cell phone policy.

“We can reach kids faster now than ever. We have several district-approved ways to use technology where all communication is housed in our vault and we have a record that can be archived. There is an understanding that everybody needs to be protected, and that’s hard to do if we don’t have the ability to monitor it,” Hawes said.

[Former Kennebunk teacher found not guilty of sex assault]

RSU 21 took a hard hit this year with two high-profile incidents that cost two teachers their jobs, and forced the district to take a hard look at electronic communication and social media policies.

In February Michael Herman, who was hired in September to run the new theater at KHS, resigned after coming under fire for creating two fake Facebook profiles, which he acknowledged were an attempt to gain access to two private Facebook groups, “KBK Moms” and “Not Quite KBK Moms.” Herman said members of the groups were criticizing his program.

The situation sparked heated emotion in the community, created a deep divide, and left the theater students without a director for shows in the high school’s new state-of-the art theater.

Hawes said both Lamontagne’s case and the theater director incident demonstrate the need for transparency. She said teachers will have the ability to create social media accounts that are district approved and connected to the main RSU 21 Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Guidelines for the use of those accounts will be rolled out when teachers return to school this fall, and Hawes said all communication on these accounts will be transparent and archived.

“People don’t have the ability to understand nuance with text messages, and kids are even less adept at this,” Hawes said. “This is all the more reason for us to protect our teachers on the front end.”

However in a small community like Kennebunk, and other small towns across Maine, teachers often interact with students outside of school in a host of different ways – and that’s where the lines of policies can blur, teachers have said.

[‘I couldn’t move’: Former teacher acquitted of sex assault opens up about accusations]

Teachers use local high school students as babysitters. They work together in summer jobs, and belong to church and civic groups outside of school. Teachers are often parents too, and many have the cell phone numbers of their children’s friends, also students at the school where they teach. In a day and age where less than half of American households still have a landline phone, cell phones are the primary means of communication.

The Maine School Management Association has sample policies school districts can use to craft their own local policies. In the sample “staff conduct with students,” examples of unacceptable conduct include “maintaining personal contact with a student outside of school by phone, email, instant messenger or internet chat room, and social networking websites.”

The sample policy also suggests that school districts should not allow students to address teachers by their first name, nickname or in any other overly familiar manner.

In an age where the use of technology has become integrated into everyday life at every age, some educators are taking a different approach to an all-out ban on cell phone communication between teachers and students.

A 2017 article headlined “Keeping the ‘Fear Factor’ Out of Teacher-Student Texting” in NEA Today, the National Education Association’s online newsletter, states, “There’s an obvious need to tread carefully and establish parameters around any policies permitting texting between educators and their students. But many experts believe schools that ban the practice – by preventing teachers from taking advantage of a potentially valuable tool of communication – are actually ill-serving students.”

In the article Liz Kolb, a professor of educational technologies at the University of Michigan, said she believes much can be lost by dismissing texting. Kolb says the “fear factor” around teacher-student texting is real but shouldn’t dictate the parameters around online communication. “Common sense and personal judgment should,” Kolb says.

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