November 18, 2019
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‘I couldn’t move’: Former teacher acquitted of sexual assault opens up about accusations

Rich Beauchesne | York County Coast Star
Rich Beauchesne | York County Coast Star
Jill Lamontagne, a former teacher at Kennebunk High School who was recently acquitted of sexual assault of a student, talks to a Seacoast Online reporter.

KENNEBUNK, Maine — When Jill Lamontagne learned last June she was being accused of sexually assaulting a Kennebunk High School student, she felt her life came crashing down on her.

Lamontagne was working as a teacher at the school at the time, and she said she didn’t leave her couch for a month, losing a frightening amount of weight as the enormity of what she was facing took a toll.

“In the beginning I couldn’t see out, I couldn’t see up, I couldn’t move,” the 30-year-old Lamontagne said Monday during an expansive interview at her home. She spoke four days after she was acquitted on the charges by a York County Superior Court jury, addressing a host of topics in connection with the case, including an explanation of her decision to exchange text messages with the student in violation of school policy.

Oct. 4, 2017 was the day Lamontagne had to turn herself in at the Kennebunk Police Department. Her husband came home from work to watch their kids, then 3 and 4 years old, and she drove herself to the station.

“They asked me if I had ever been there, and I said ‘No. I never even had a speeding ticket.’ I was scared, I had a lot of questions for my lawyer, I didn’t know what it meant,” she said.

Lamontagne was found not guilty last Thursday on all 14 counts alleging she sexually assaulted a then 17-year-old student in 2017, concluding a four-day trial. After three and a half days of testimony, the 12-member jury reached a verdict in just under two hours.

While the student testified in court that he and Lamontagne had a sexual relationship, she testified that the student was having emotional and academic issues and that 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.

Attempts to reach the student were unsuccessful.

When she was first indicted on the charges and the case drew national attention overnight, with tabloids taking and publishing personal family photos from her Facebook page, Lamontagne said it was hard to find the courage to leave her house.

“My husband grocery shopped, or I would do a Hannaford-to-Go order and he would pick it up. The beach was always my favorite place and I really struggled, I just couldn’t go,” she said. “I’m a huge runner, and I didn’t even dare go for a run. I didn’t know if someone would say something, especially in front of my kids. So I didn’t even want to go out at first.”

With the help of a trauma counselor, Lamontagne started going out in public around town, and people’s reactions were supportive, she said.

As the weeks went on, and the trial date was set, Lamontagne said she had to think about the unthinkable – what would happen to her family if she went to jail?

With the help of her trauma counselor, Lamontagne devised a plan, wrote it out, and talked it over with her husband. It included how her son would get to and from school, and how her daughter would be cared for as well. She created recurring Amazon pantry orders for household items so her husband wouldn’t have to do all of the things she usually handled. She packed away clothes for her children for the next couple of years, labeled by size and season.

“I would just sit there and sob as I did it, but it felt like the only thing I did have control over, I had to do these things,” she said.

All the while, she tried to be strong and maintain normalcy for her children and the rest of her family.

“The kids didn’t know anything about what was going on. I was with them, but I wasn’t present, I really tried to be, but I wasn’t the same mother to them, and I have that guilt,” Lamontagne said.

Financially, the impact on her family has been a “hard hit.” She lost her health insurance last fall when she resigned from KHS, and the family went uninsured for a few months before they were able to pick up insurance through her husband. She has lost the career she invested both time and money in. Her job teaching health at Kennebunk High School was her dream job, she said, and she had planned to work there for her entire career.

A 2006 graduate of Kennebunk High School, Lamontagne was a three-sport athlete and a top student. Her father, Dave Mitchell, was vice principal at KHS while she was a student there and remains a math teacher. School work was her priority and she admits it came easily to her. But she knew that wasn’t the case for other students, and she said it seemed so unfair.

“What if someone asked me to play the piano every other day for 80 minutes, and then they told me that I’m bad at it, and I also don’t like it, but I have to do it? That’s what it’s like for these kids who struggle academically, and it’s awful. So I always kept the lines of communication open and we always talked about life lessons and the bigger picture,” Lamontagne said.

She said going through the last year in the small town where her family has always lived was both a blessing and a curse.

“It was a Catch-22, it was great because everyone knew me, but then, everyone knew me, so it works both ways,” she said.

Asked if she would have done anything differently while she was helping the student who accused her, Lamontagne said, “It’s easy to look at it that way now, but that’s just so not me.”

When asked about the phone calls and texts with a student in violation of the school district’s policy, Lamontagne said that it’s “normalized” at the school. A KHS teacher testified at the trial and others have spoken publicly about using cellphones to communicate with students and parents.

RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes issued a statement after the verdict was reached saying, “I think it is important to acknowledge that the evidence that was presented during the trial demonstrated a troubling failure by one of our teachers to comply with the standard we expect of all of our employees.”

The school district policy prohibits employees from communicating with students by text and social media platforms and requires teachers to refer students in crisis to professional counselors, rather than attempting to intervene on their own, Hawes said in the statement.

During the trial, 43 phone calls and 86 text messages between Lamontagne and the student were entered into evidence. Lamontagne testified that the student had a poor relationship with the school’s substance abuse counselor and would not seek help there, so she continued attempts to help him.

In a phone interview Monday, Hawes said, the district’s policy is in place for transparency and to protect both staff and students.

“Our policy is don’t use your personal cellphone,” she said. “You need to find a different way to reach students.”

A staff member testified during Lamontagne’s trial that she used her personal cellphone to text students. When asked if that staff member would face disciplinary measures, Hawes said she could not comment on personnel matters.

Lamontagne said that while she understands there needs to be a policy in place, the current policy is “archaic.”

“I think that there’s an updated version that might be a better fit. I used to look up my teacher’s number in the phone book and then call their home phone, but that’s not the way we live now. I don’t even have a home phone,” she said.

She said that her responsibilities at the school went so far beyond the normal school hours with kids that she had to have a way to reach them. She volunteered hundreds of hours with the Interact Club and did a lot of fundraising as the adviser for the Class of 2018, and she would also help champion any cause her students were enthusiastic about. Those were the things she was communicating with students about, she said.

As for the future, Lamontagne said she’s unsure. She would love to go back to teaching. She would love to go back to teaching at KHS. She’s not sure if that is realistic, but she says helping people is in her nature.

“I’m kind of just going with it right now, but I’m ready to move on. Whatever I do, my purpose has always been helping people. That’s clearly what I want to do,” she said.

Is she angry?

“No, I’m frustrated and I’m hurt. Angry is just so out of my nature. This used up all of my energy. I don’t have the energy to be angry.”

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