Kennebunk High School theater director Michael Herman had submitted his resignation effective March 30 after creating two fake Facebook profiles. But he says he’s now hoping to stay.
He has acknowledged the fake profiles were an attempt to gain access to two private Facebook groups, “KBK Moms” and “Not Quite KBK Moms,” where he says members were criticizing his program.
Herman, who was hired in September to run the new theater at KHS, said he was given a resignation letter by school officials and asked to sign it late last week. Support from students in the theater program has changed his mind.
“Kids started rallying and asking what they could do, and we received an overwhelming barrage of support from both students and parents,” Herman said Tuesday morning. His wife, Rachel Yoder, serves as the KHS Interact Club adviser and director of the spring play.
“We realize that the message we are sending if we give up and we leave is that bullying is OK. It says if you are loud and you make a lot of noise and you get to people who are influential and make noise, it works,” Herman said. “That’s not the message we want these kids to get. We also don’t want this to send the message that when things get tough, it’s OK to give up. We want them to know we are not abandoning them.”
RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes confirmed that Herman’s resignation was accepted by the district on Jan. 31, 2018. She declined to confirm Tuesday morning that he had rescinded his resignation.
Hawes said Herman will stay on through March 30 to finish up the spring play, a musical adaptation of “As You Like It” that is currently cast and in full rehearsal. The play is set to open March 1 with more showings March 2-3 and March 9-11.
Hawes said the decision was made to allow Herman to stay through the end of the play “based upon our thorough investigation that involved staff and the RSU 21 IT department. Through that investigation we determined that we do not feel that students or staff are in any danger.”
Kennebunk resident Leslie Trentalange alerted district officials, the RSU 21 School Board, and the Kennebunk Police Department on Jan. 24 via email of Herman’s fake Facebook accounts saying, “An employee of RSU 21 at Kennebunk High School has been using his RSU 21 email account to set up fake Facebook accounts, join a local Facebook group, post insulting and inflammatory comments and ‘Facebook friend’ a number of Kennebunk minors and KHS students and parents.”
Trentalange does not have a child in the theater programs at KHS, but she said she fears that Herman is a “safety risk” to the students. She said there are others who feel the same way.
“I fear that if someone would go to such lengths to hide his identity so he could ‘speak out’ with hostility on social media, he presents a safety risk,” Trentalange wrote in her email.
Theater parent Gregg Dinino adamantly disagrees.
“I trust those two implicitly. I see in Michael what we would all classify as a good teacher and a good leader. He challenges them and sets the bar high. He strikes a great balance. It’s been terrific to watch his interaction with the kids. The kids feel like this is suddenly a big deal, suddenly it’s in a whole new league because of Michael and Rachel and the experience they bring. These are kids who in many cases feel kind of left out in high school,” he said.
Dinino said he has known Herman and Yoder for at least 10 years, through his daughter, Ana, a KHS senior involved with MaineStage Shakespeare, where Herman and Yoder are part of the leadership team. Herman appointed Dinino set designer of the KHS fall play “The Crucible” and he said he has put dozens of hours in on the set of “As You Like It.”
Hawes said she has received emails and calls both in support of Herman and against him following his actions.
‘The stupidest thing I’ve ever done’
In an interview last week, Herman was candid about what he said was “clearly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.”
“There’s no excuse, I get that,” he said.
Herman said he created the two fake Facebook profiles in December and sent out friend requests to local people. He and Yoder both said they had tried to join two closed Facebook groups, “KBK Moms” and “Not Quite KBK Moms,” but were “repeatedly denied.” Yoder said she first tried to join because they were looking to find housing when they moved to the area and she thought it could be a good resource.
Herman said they had been hearing through close friends on a regular basis that there were “negative, inflammatory and inaccurate discussions about both us and the theater program in these social media groups.”
“So I created a fake Facebook page, a Kennebunk-looking mom, and friended people in those groups. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I was not giving a lot of thought to it,” Herman said.
He got into the groups under the false name “Carol Lewis” and later created another profile under the name “Diane Emmons.”
The fake accounts were quickly noticed.
“My sole intention was to gain access to the group so we could monitor what was being said about us. I understand that was the entirely wrong way to go about it,” Herman said.
Group members became suspicious when “Carol Lewis” posts began to appear, and seemed argumentative, according to Trentalange. She said some students did a search and discovered that the profile had been created using Herman’s RSU 21 e-mail address.
Herman said he did not intentionally Facebook “friend” students, but said that it was a possibility.
“It (Facebook) was suggesting people and I just added. I couldn’t say that I didn’t. I added random people to make it seem like I was a real person in the community so they would let me into the group,” he said.
On Jan. 25, Hawes e-mailed Trentalange to say the district conducted a complete investigation and determined they did not believe students to be at any risk.
The following day, Herman issued an apology letter sent to Trentalange and district officials, in which he said he regretted the decision to create the fake Facebook profiles to gain access to the groups. He said his “one and only intent was to be a part of the conversation and given the opportunity to correct any inaccurate information.”
Herman went on to say in his apology letter, “In absolutely no way am I excusing my reaction to this situation.”
The fake Facebook profiles were taken down immediately.
In a follow-up email to Hawes dated Jan. 27, Trentalange outlined a number of concerns, calling Hawes’ judgement into question, and saying Herman exhibited disturbing and paranoid behavior that put students at risk.
On Jan. 31, Hawes issued a statement to district parents stating, “A situation was brought to the attention of the Kennebunk Police Department and RSU 21 late last week regarding an employee having created a false Facebook account using an RSU 21 email address. The police determined that it was not a legal issue. We fully investigated the situation and determined that the person used poor judgment and violated our internet use and staff and conduct policies but, most importantly, that no students or staff were ever at risk. We take these matters very seriously and took immediate steps to address the situation. If you ever have concerns about safety in our schools please reach out to your school principal or central office administrator.”
Herman said he did not receive a copy of the district policies at the beginning of the school year, though he acknowledged that did not excuse his actions on social media. Hawes said the policies are posted on the district website “and we ask all employees to read them.”
She acknowledged that district officials will look at a more formal means of sharing the “most relevant” policies with new hires.
Yoder said the concerns and characterizations of her husband are hard to hear. She said the two have never met Trentalange.
“It’s not true. That’s not who we are and that’s not what happened. It’s hurtful. It’s damaging. It makes me wake up and feel like we are bad people. That’s what’s upsetting,” Yoder said tearfully during an interview last week. “This seems like such a vendetta.”
Trentalange said she doesn’t have a vendetta around Yoder or Herman, she just wants to see policy followed. In an interview Monday she said she wants Herman out of the position, and she does not think he should stay through March 30.
“This is not normal appropriate behavior. The policies in place are policies, they (the students) are learning that breaking school policies has no consequences, or delayed consequences. Is that the right thing to teach the kids?” she said.
Trentalange said she understands that ousting Herman before the spring play performances would likely force it to be cancelled, but she is not backing down.
“I understand that it has repercussions, would I have been upset about this when I was in high school? Yes. But in my mind it’s what’s best for the students and the kids, I can’t speak for the volunteers. It’s an unhealthy situation and it just needs to end.”
Student and community reaction
Several students and parents have shown public support for Herman, acknowledging his mistake, but also noting what he and Yoder have done for the theater program and for them personally since arriving at KHS. Many of those closely connected to the pair have known them for years through the MaineStage Shakespeare summer camps.
Kylie Parsons, a seventh-grader at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, is one of them. Parsons said Herman saw the potential in her writing during summer camp and worked with her one on one to teach her more advanced techniques.
“Spending my summer with Michael as a mentor gave me so much confidence. He inspires me and everyone he meets,” she said.
Kylie Parsons parents, Chad and Robin Parsons, said they support their daughter and Herman.
In a letter sent to district officials, Robin Parsons said a lot had been said about Herman on social media, but “none of what I read represents the man I have come to know.”
“I have never seen him be anything but kind and patient when working with a child, or when speaking with a parent,” she said.
Parent Stephanie Williams said Herman “has a new, fresh and unique concept of community theater that has brought together so many previously untapped talents. My son actually looks forward to participating in theater since Michael’s arrival.”
Dinino doesn’t excuse Herman’s actions, but he can understand the culture that pushed him into it.
“My belief is, I’m not a member of those groups, but I’ve heard what’s going on, and to be saying things about people who can’t defend themselves, who are denied access, it’s just not right. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but I get it. I believe that ultimately those kinds of interactions are designed to intimidate and push a single-sided point of view at the exclusion of the truth. There might be a piece of the truth embedded in them, but that’s it,” Dinino said.
In their contact with administrators, several theater parents have noted the irony in the comparison of the ongoing controversy to the message behind the fall play “The Crucible,” an account of the Salem witch trials and trial by public opinion.
Yoder noted that the upcoming KHS musical adaptation of “As You Like It,” a collaboration with MaineStage Shakespeare, has an ironic message, too.
“It’s about love in the face of hate,” she said.
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