Temple Academy in Waterville is seeking a protection from harassment order against Tim White, a parent of a former student who was ousted from the school. White has been protesting against the private school for the past decade.  Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — After hours of at-times tense testimony Tuesday in district court, the weight of a decade-long dispute came out in tears.

First came Katie White, who asked the judge if she could speak freely as she mulled the meaning of “abuse” a decade after her son was ousted from a private Christian school in Waterville.

“This family has suffered emotional abuse,” Katie White said, holding back tears, as her son, Michael, sat behind her.

From the other side of the room came Denise Lafountain, head of school at Temple Academy, who said that emotional abuse goes both ways and also had taken its toll on her.

“I’m afraid,” Lafountain said, crying. “I have anxiety.”

That emotional conclusion to Tuesday afternoon’s trial came after Temple Academy and the Whites had already brought witnesses to testify in Waterville District Court.

Temple is seeking its latest protection from harassment order against Tim White of Sanford who, for the past decade, has been at times standing outside the Christian school in protest. White has held signs that suggest the school committed “child abuse” by ousting his son, Michael, while he’s also contacted Temple officials via social media and text message.

White, acting on his own behalf without an attorney in his closing argument before Judge Charles Dow, framed the issue whether his constitutional right to protest the school would be subverted by “a religious entity stifling dissent.”

Tim White has been publicly protesting against Temple Academy in Waterville for the past decade. Scott Monroe/Morning Sentinel file

“All I’m asking the court to do is give me my First Amendment rights to free speech,” White said. “It’s my contention they abused my child, they hurt my child. I didn’t start this fight … but I’m just bat-crazy enough to fight for 11 years. I’ve acted peaceably, I’ve harmed no one, but I continue to speak.”

Alton Stevens, a local lawyer who has represented Temple in the dispute for the past decade, argued that White’s actions both in person and online have people fearful for their safety, and that settled court cases show White’s actions meet the statutory definition of harassment and require a protection order barring him from being near the school property and from contacting Temple officials.

“The issues in this are simple,” Stevens said, citing at least four instances from earlier this year in which White either contacted Temple officials or protested across the road from the school. “That’s all we need to prove. That constitutes harassment.”

Judge Dow said he would take a few weeks to consider a ruling in the case, and would extend a temporary protection order in the meantime until his decision is reached.

White, who works as a shipwright at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, appeared in court July 20 for an initial hearing on the dispute, at which he refused to reach agreement with Temple and brought one witness who spoke briefly.

The dispute between White and Temple was triggered by events in 2009-10, when the school stripped White of his role as a volunteer basketball coach over claims his behavior was hostile and angry in front of others.

When White repeatedly refused to accept that ruling by staff and the school board, Temple ultimately cited a clause in the private school’s contract that forces a family to withdraw their child if they won’t agree with the school’s decisions.

Temple sent the Whites a letter in February 2010 asking Michael, then a junior, to come clean out his locker and desk, which he did.

White has had additional grievances with Temple following the incident, asserting as well that Temple improperly shared his son’s school records with the Bangor Daily News for a story about the dispute in 2010. No actual documents seem to have been shared, but Temple Administrator Denise Lafountain was quoted by the newspaper as saying Michael White served multiple detentions and had behavior issues, underlining the fact that the school needed “100 percent cooperation from the family.”

During that July 20 hearing, White introduced as evidence a letter written recently by state Sen. Robert Foley, R-York, who submitted legislation, L.D. 59, in response to White calling attention to the newspaper story.

Foley’s bill, which calls on private schools to “follow Maine’s public-school law regarding the privacy of any and all personal records the school had on any student,” was vetoed by then-Gov. Paul LePage, but the veto was overridden by the Legislature on May 21, 2015, and became law.

White has been continually protesting outside the school and contacting current and former Temple officials over the last decade, saying in an interview recently that he won’t stop until Temple issues a “public apology” and agrees to a cash settlement with him. Stevens said Temple won’t agree to that.

In his defense against the protection order, White has asserted that his constitutional right to peaceably protest should be upheld. He’s cited protests near abortion clinics as well as the 2011 landmark U.S. Supreme court case, Snyder v. Phelps, that ruled that speech on a matter of public concern occurring on a public street cannot be the legal basis for causing emotional distress, even if the speech is viewed as “offensive” or “outrageous.” The ruling came in response to the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, which was picketing military funerals in a public setting to draw attention to what its members saw as punishment for tolerance of homosexuality.

Stevens said that prior protection orders, and the new one currently being sought, aim to bar White from the school property and the area of West River Road surrounding it, whether the school is visible or not. The protection order includes standard language that White would not be allowed “in the vicinity of” the plaintiff’s homes, school or place of business.

Centerpoint Community Church and Temple announced last month they had ended their 45-year relationship so the school can become independent to better establish itself as a nondenominational Christian institution.

Listed as plaintiffs in the protection from harassment order are Kevin Wood, superintendent of schools for Temple; Lafountain, the current head of school; and Craig Riportella, pastor of Centerpoint Community Church.

In court Tuesday, Stevens introduced four exhibits as illustrating White’s harassment from February to March this year: White sent a social media and phone messages to former Principal James McSpadden and Lafountain’s husband alleging child abuse; and a photo of him protesting outside the school. White looked at the exhibits and agreed he wrote them, while saying he made sure to stand in the public right-of-way and not on school property when protesting.

White also called his wife, Katie, and son, Michael, to testify on the stand, asking questions that were continually objected to by Stevens on grounds of relevancy and hearsay. “You can’t go back and relitigate those prior orders,” Stevens said.

But Dow allowed much of the testimony to continue, as White said he was trying to establish a baseline for what happened a decade ago and how that impacted his family. His questioning often veered away from the issue of protesting and centered on whether the school acted in good faith when his son was ousted.

For his part, Michael White recounted an incident in which he said McSpadden brought him and another student into a room and screamed at them, slamming his fists on a table, over a misunderstanding with another student.

“He intimidated me. I was afraid,” Michael White said. “That was abusive.”

Michael White also testified that he was called into a school assembly on his last day with teachers and students at which his departure was announced in front of everyone, resulting in what he described as a public humiliation and denigration. On the stand, McSpadden recounted an entirely different assembly, saying White was not named and that officials only talked in general terms about an issue that was being discussed on Facebook and asked students to conduct themselves honorably.

Those starkly different accounts led to tense exchanges in court. When Michael White stood up as McSpadden returned to his seat, the younger White motioned to him and loudly said, “Ladies first.”

That drew an admonishment from Dow, who asked the younger White to “conform to basic rules of court responsibility.”

“I don’t want to deal with interpersonal conflicts outside the question before the court,” Dow told him.

Under cross-examination, the younger White was asked by Stevens if he understood the perjury penalties for being found lying under oath. White said he did, and offered: “I haven’t lied so far.” Michael White subsequently admitted to Stevens that he had personally protested outside Temple as well, giving the middle finger to a youth pastor there.

Michael White, asked on the stand by his father to respond to McSpadden’s description of the school assembly, testified: “It was a lie.” McSpadden would return to the stand in rebuttal, saying White’s description was “not true.”

That tension continued into closing arguments, as Tim White went so far as to suggest to Dow that Stevens should be investigated for disbarment for writing “knowingly false statements” in the request for a protection from harassment order.

“I do have anger issues; I am angry,” White said, explaining why he continues to protest at the school more than a decade later. “But I have not one time ever gone into their compound.”

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