KENNEBUNK, Maine — A former Kennebunk High School teacher who was acquitted by a York County grand jury of charges of sexually assaulting a student has taken action against RSU 21 and intends to file a lawsuit.
Jill Lamontagne filed a whistleblowers’ retaliation complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission on Nov. 11, 2018, against RSU 21. In the document, Lamontagne says the district failed to address her complaints about her safety, provided false information during the investigation into the claims made against her and hampered her ability to defend herself against the criminal charges.
Lamontagne was found not guilty July 26, 2018, on all 14 counts alleging she sexually assaulted a then 17-year-old student in 2017. After three and a half days of testimony, the 12-member jury reached a verdict in just under two hours.
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The MHRC dismissed Lamontagne’s complaint June 19. A statement of finding from Executive Director Amy M. Sneirson states, “After investigation and consideration of the above referenced charge of discrimination, the commission has not found reasonable grounds to believe that unlawful discrimination has occurred.”
Lamontagne’s lawyer, Guy Loranger, an Old Orchard Beach-based attorney specializing in civil rights cases, says the dismissal paves the way for his client to file a lawsuit against RSU 21, which he said they intend to do.
Acting RSU 21 Superintendent Phil Potenziano said in a statement Thursday that the district could not comment on specific details but is pleased with the MHRC dismissal.
“Since Ms. Lamontagne was a former employee [teacher] in RSU 21, I am not able to discuss personnel information or specific details involving this case. I am, however, pleased the Maine Human Rights Commission has not found reasonable grounds to believe that unlawful discrimination has occurred and thus dismissed the complaint. The dismissal of this complaint is welcomed,” he said.
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Loranger said the dismissal does not affect his client’s legal case, and is not admissible as evidence in a lawsuit.
He said Lamontagne was reluctant to go further with any type of litigation because of what she has been through, but felt it was important to stand up for herself and other teachers.
“This is something that Jill didn’t want to have to do, but it’s something morally and ethically she feels she has to do for other people in her position. When she sees other teachers who are retaliated against by the school district, she feels she needed to take a stand,” Loranger said.
While the student involved in the case testified in court that he and Lamontagne had a sexual relationship, Lamontagne testified during the trial that the student was having emotional and academic issues and she worked with him to help him graduate. Text messages and cellphone calls between Lamontagne and the student were entered into evidence during the trial, communication Lamontagne said was to check on the student’s well-being or to try to boost his spirits, but she said their relationship was never sexual.
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In the MHRC complaint, Lamontagne says the district placed her on administrative leave March 29, 2017, after she reported the rumor being spread through the school alleging the sexual contact with the student. On April 12, 2017, the complaint states she received a letter from the RSU saying the district’s investigation concluded the allegations of sexual relations were unsubstantiated. She says she was retaliated against with a “letter of reprimand” from the district alleging her “failure to keep proper boundaries with her students.”
Lamontagne said in the MHRC complaint that she responded to the letter of reprimand detailing her efforts to help the student.
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Lamontagne resigned from her teaching position in September 2017. The MHRC complaint states Lamontagne met the teacher hired to replace her “thus, unceremoniously learned of her termination, despite having not been afforded her due process rights under the CBA or the United States Constitution,” and that the district “pressured” Lamontagne to resign.
Also detailed in the complaint, Loranger said, is further retaliation against Lamontagne for raising issues of her own, and other teacher’s safety while a member of the Climate Committee at KHS, and in a meeting she requested in June 2017 with then superintendent Katie Hawes, Potenziano and a teacher’s union representative. At that meeting Lamontagne raised concerns about KHS not acknowledging her requests to be moved from her portable classroom to a more visible classroom. In the meeting, Lamontagne says she raised multiple concerns about her safety.
In the complaint, Lamontagne says district officials failed to respond to concerns for her safety. “The superintendent, instead, asserted that (Lamontagne) ‘got what she deserved’ as a result of the need for the investigation into the false charges against her,” the complaint reads.
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“There’s always a narrative. She became an advocate, and they (school administration) didn’t like that,” Loranger said. “She went above and beyond her responsibility to help this young man. Rumors started. She went to the administration and asked for help and they turned their back on her. The retaliatory animus that’s exhibited is very, very concerning.”
Loranger said they have 90 days from the date of the MHRC dismissal to file a lawsuit. He said the claim will be based on Lamontagne’s protection under the Maine Whistleblower’s Protection Act, and the termination of her employment will be a part of that.
“Because of these false allegations that were supported by the school, her professional career has been pretty much destroyed by the school district,” Loranger said. “ Jill has had to weigh her need to move on with her life with what she needs to do to clear her name.”
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This comes just two weeks after Hawes resigned as superintendent to accept a teaching opportunity at the University of Southern Maine Graduate School, and follows RSU 21′s settlement of a race-based Maine Human Rights Commission complaint filed against the district and Kennebunk High School by former teacher Rosa Slack. Slack said she was retaliated against by school officials for raising concerns over racial incidents aimed at herself, a black woman, while she was a teacher at KHS. According to the agreement, RSU 21 paid Slack $50,000 to settle the complaint — $40,000 to cover legal expenses and $10,000 in compensatory damages — and agreed to change her 2016-17 teacher evaluation to remove statements that Slack stated in her original complaint were made in retaliation for her speaking out about racial incidents at the high school. RSU 21 has since launched an independent investigation into how district administrators handled Slack’s case. The district is also working with the Mid Atlantic Equity Consortium to begin a long-term diversity, equity, and inclusion assessment program.