WISCASSET, Maine — The founder of an Edgecomb school, who in 2015 won a $1 million Global Teacher Prize, was sentenced Monday to a four-month suspended sentence with one year of administrative release for seven counts of misdemeanor theft.
“If the court doesn’t recognize mental illness in this case, the court is in some sort of alternate reality … this is about a woman who was in some type of crisis … which, I think it’s clear, she has attempted to deal with, hopefully effectively,” Judge Paul D. Matthews said of Nancie M. Atwell, 67, of Southport.
Atwell pleaded guilty to shoplifting on six separate occasions, all while on a deferred disposition for a previous theft, according to court documents. The Monday sentencing ties up the latest legal trouble in what some called a “bizarre” case involving an acclaimed educator who less than four years ago took home a $1-million prize for being among the best in the world in her field.
Lincoln County Assistant District Attorney Katherine MacRae asked the judge to impose a sentence of seven days in jail with 250 hours of community service, requesting that the community service not be served at a nonprofit Atwell is not affiliated with, because previous community service was served at the school she founded, the Center for Teaching and Learning, under the supervision of her daughter.
MacRae said the requested sentence — “one of the most lenient the state provides” — was determined after considering Atwell’s contributions to the community, age, criminal history, apparent restitution paid to the victims and “potential mental health diagnoses.”
Matthews asked MacRae if there was some sort of sentence that would include conditions to which Atwell would have to adhere.
“At some point, it is the state’s position that the law must mean something,” MacRae said, objecting to any type of administrative release. She added later that the state believes some type of incarceration is important for general deterrence.
Under terms of a plea agreement, Atwell was required to commit no further crimes for two years, undergo a psychological evaluation and counseling, complete 100 hours of community service, and prove she is donating the $1 million prize money to the Center for Teaching and Learning.
Had that happened, the charge would have been dismissed in June 2018.
But Atwell subsequently shoplifted dog treats, a dog leash and a pot of mums, among other items, from Ames True Value in Wiscasset on six occasions in August, September and October 2017. She pleaded guilty to the charges, according to court documents.
Atwell founded the nonprofit Center for Teaching and Learning in 1990 and wrote numerous books about education methods. In March 2015, she traveled to Dubai to accept a $1 million teaching prize known as the “Nobel Prize of teaching.”
Six of about 10 friends, family members and colleagues in court to support Atwell spoke on her behalf, requesting leniency and affirming her commitment to recovery through medication and therapy.
“Now that she has a diagnosis, she’s working extremely hard to make sure she has control of herself,” her husband said. “I hope you will be able to help her continue her recovery.”
Atwell said she takes various medications for her different diagnoses and that with intense psychotherapy, “Now I think before I act … I can monitor the precursors of my behavior.”
Others spoke of Atwell’s “bizarre” crime as the result of “severe mental illness” including kleptomania.
“It is an illness, like a demon, that committed those crimes,” Hector Jaeger said.
Atwell has donated the entire $1 million to her school, her attorney, Richard Berne, told the judge. Berne said she resigned as a teacher and board member from the school, and has submitted her entire experience to the National Association of Mental Health.
Advocating against incarceration, Berne said Atwell has been humiliated and embarrassed by her actions, and continues to feel shame. He asked for a suspended sentence and community service.
“Why do I incarcerate a woman who for over 40 years of her life has given to kids, to professionals in her teaching community, who has dedicated her life to that noble cause of educating children, and I’m certain, having seen the salaries of teachers, not receiving the income she deserves,” Matthews said, adding that even when winning $1 million, “she passed that along to the children.”
Matthews said he would like to sentence Atwell to 250 hours of community service “at the work she did so well,” with a one-year administrative release.
“I don’t want that to discourage you in any way to from returning to CTL,” Matthews said, pointedly, to Atwell. “I think there also might be some public school kids out there who could use some help.”
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