Jill Lamontagne says she was just trying to help a troubled student when she exchanged dozens of emails and scores of text messages with the 17-year-old boy.

Those online communications – including 94 text messages exchanged over a two-week period – turned into evidence that prosecutors used against her in a criminal trial after the youth accused Lamontagne of sexually assaulting him.

The 30-year-old Kennebunk High School teacher was acquitted last week by a jury that found her not guilty of all 14 sexual misconduct charges that had been brought against her.

Lamontagne’s trial highlighted the hazards of online communication in teacher-student relationships and illustrated the challenges school administrators face in trying to set effective policies.

As technology becomes ever more pervasive and sophisticated, teachers are increasingly facing the question of how, and whether, to use online tools to reach students or families.

“You have to be super, super careful,” said John Suttie, principal of Old Orchard Beach High School and the local superintendent. “I think (texting) is a wonderful way to communicate with students and parents. But I do think about every word I tap in.”

All Maine schools have general policies about the ways teachers can and cannot interact with students, but the evolution of online technology is making it more complicated. In response, many districts have added specific policies around social media. Some forbid certain forms of online contact. Others allow exceptions for school-related work.

For teachers, the answer often comes down to what works. Some teachers don’t interact online with students at all. Others text freely but won’t use Facebook, Snapchat or other social media platforms to contact, “friend” or “follow” students.

After the verdict was announced, Kathryn Hawes, the superintendent of Regional School Unit 21, which includes the Kennebunks and Arundel, said Lamontagne had “demonstrated a troubling failure” to comply with the district’s standards involving communications with students.

Those policies are set at the local level and vary across the state. The Maine School Management Association has sample policies for districts to use in crafting local policies. In the MSMA sample policy on staff conduct, examples of unacceptable conduct include allowing students to call teachers by their first name, or for teachers to talk to students in an “overly familiar” manner.

More specifically, the sample policy forbids “maintaining personal contact with a student outside of school by phone, email, Instant Messenger or Internet chat rooms, social networking websites or letters (beyond homework or other legitimate school business.)”

Read the Maine School Management Association’s sample policy on staff conduct

The RSU 21 policy, adopted in June after Lamontagne was charged but before she went to trial, expressly forbids school employees from “friending” students or interacting in any way on social networking sites or “any digital applications” outside of school-approved sites. It also requires any employee who wants to use social media to submit a request to their principal or the superintendent.

The clarity of such a policy stands out against the inherently casual and familiar nature of online communications – particularly texting, which is full of emojis, short texts like “hey” and acronyms like “LOL.”

‘APPROPRIATE AND PROFESSIONAL’

Even between adults who know each other, the meaning of a text can be unclear. In Lamontagne’s case, she recommended a particular song to the student – but not which specific lyrics. In court, the prosecution drew attention to the more romantically charged portions of the song, while in her interview after the trial, Lamontagne said she was thinking about lyrics that were about being able to change and be a better person.

In the pre-internet era, it would have been difficult for a teacher to have such personal and frequent contact with a student.

The analog equivalents of Lamontagne’s behavior might be a teacher giving a student a “mixtape” – a move usually reserved for best friends or romantic relationships – or calling a student’s home telephone land line scores of times.

It’s even an issue for elementary school teachers, according to a fifth-grade teacher in Portland.

“I have had some students follow me on Twitter, and I promptly blocked them. I have a conversation with them (about why) and talked to their parents,” said Talya Edlund, a former Maine Teacher of the Year. Edlund used to teach in Cape Elizabeth and now teaches in Portland.

Cape Elizabeth Pond Cove Elementary Third Grade Teacher Talya Edlund, pictured winning the Maine Teacher of the Year award in 2015, says that she has a strict personal policy of never texting her own students, but recognizes that the technology can be useful when it’s for learning and education.

The Portland district does not have a specific social media policy, but Edlund says she has a strict personal policy of never texting her own students. However, she recognizes that texting can be appropriate “when it’s for learning and education.” It’s an ongoing and evolving conversation for teachers, she said.

“It has caused me to think more critically about why I’m using technology in the first place,” Edlund said.

Today, there are technology solutions for such technology problems. In virtually all Maine school districts, parents can sign up for online notifications, and for online access to websites that provide student progress reports and where teachers can communicate with both students and family members.

To replace traditional texting, districts can use the Remind app, which allows teachers to send either individual or group texts to students and/or parents, but doesn’t store the student/parent phone numbers or allow teachers to see them. The students and parents do not have access to the teacher’s phone number, either.

Mostly, communicating online with students comes down to judgment and common sense, said Suttie, the Old Orchard Beach superintendent. As a teacher and coach at Noble and Bonny Eagle high schools, he texted regularly with students.

“I found that texting is an extremely effective way to communicate with students. They get right back to you,” Suttie said.

It’s particularly useful for coaches, he noted, who are frequently dealing with immediate issues of game times, working out rides or changes in schedules because of weather.

“People ask, ‘Are you worried (about texting students)?’ and the answer is no, absolutely not,” Suttie said. “Everything is subpoenable. It’s all right there. It’s safer than talking to them behind closed doors. Whether you are having a verbal conversation with a kid or texting, it has to be appropriate and professional.”

But Suttie does not support using social media platforms to communicate with students – or even among some other adults. As superintendent, he has told all administrators that they cannot have any parents or employees as Facebook friends. “That’s non-negotiable,” he said.

‘SAFEST WAY I COULD COMMUNICATE’

After her trial, Lamontagne defended using social media to reach the boy who later accused her of assault.

“These kids or young adults live in this world of technology. It’s all they know,” Lamontagne told News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ). “So reaching a student in that mechanism is how you are going to get them.”

Lamontagne also said that the boy was “really difficult to talk to face-to-face. He was really confrontational and angry. So a text felt like the safest way I could communicate with him.”

The MSMA sample policy on staff conduct spells out that teachers with troubled students should refer the student to appropriate counseling staff, and limit their interactions with the student to school and academic subjects.

Superintendent Hawes’ statement after the trial raised that particular issue.

“RSU 21 prohibits our employees from communicating with students by text and social media platforms,” she wrote. “(And) we require our teachers to refer students in crisis to professional counselors rather than attempting to intervene with these students on their own, and we would never condone the use of intimate language, of the type introduced during the trial, between our teachers and their students.”

But experts acknowledge that the issue is challenging, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.

“It’s a topic of the times,” said Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association. “Teachers are always working to foster relationships that are positive and make connections with students. Technology is going to continue to influence how we communicate.”

Bailey, a former teacher and principal, said his own philosophy on teachers texting or “friending” a student online is colored by the fact that he is older and a man.

“I may be a little more cautious,” he said. “You have to be really, really careful. Relationships (with students) are hugely important, but the other part of that is recognizing the appropriateness of relationships. If they verge on inappropriate, then you are putting yourself in jeopardy.”

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.