A former School District 2 administrator who admitted to stealing and pawning thousands of dollars worth of school electronics over a period of months was given six years of probation Friday and the chance to clear her record of a felony theft conviction.
“I just want to apologize to my family — it’s been very hard — and to School District 2,” Dulce Faye Whitford told District Judge Ingrid Gustafson. “I have the utmost respect for them, and I would just really like to move forward and get on with my life.”
Whitford, a 46-year-old mother of three, directed SD2’s Indian Education For All program, the state-mandated curriculum that teaches American Indian culture and history in the classroom. She resigned in November, days after an investigation into the stolen property began.
Gustafson followed a recommendation by Assistant Public Defender Edward Werner and agreed to defer imposing Whitford’s sentence on the common scheme theft for six years. If Whitford meets the conditions of the sentence, which include that she pay $16,612.02 to the school district, the felony will be cleared from her record.
“She was under a lot of financial strain,” Werner said. “While that does not take away from her culpability, I want the court to keep that in mind.”
Gustafson noted that Whitford doesn’t have a criminal history — not even a traffic ticket — and that in the educational aspects of Whitford’s work, the former teacher did a “good job for children.”
“It appears to be that is the exact situation that the Legislature was trying to provide for when they crafted the idea of a deferred sentence: To give an opportunity for people to make amends for an aberrant situation or offense in their life,” the judge said.
Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Julie R. Patten argued for a five-year-suspended sentence, which would have guaranteed that Whitford would have a felony record.
Patten said that would be appropriate “due to the high level of deceit employed by the defendant in executing this criminal scheme over a period of time all while in a position of authority with School District 2.”
The prosecutor said Whitford used the proceeds from the pawned items to gamble.
Charging documents state that police began investigating the matter on Nov. 8, when an officer learned that a laptop belonging to the school district had been sold to First National Pawn, 1313 Broadwater.
Police investigated and found that Whitford had sold the laptop and frequented the pawn shop, court records say.
Police interviewed Whitford about the thefts in November and again in January, court records say. In the second interview, Whitford went over pawn receipts with a detective and identified the property she stole.
She said she had started pawning the property because she was having financial problems, court records say. Whitford also reported that she had turned to gambling, which had compounded her financial problems, and that a family illness had added to her money issues.
Charging documents say police discovered that Whitford made almost 60 pawn transactions at various pawn shops around Billings from about June 2012 to November 2013. The pawned items belonging to the district included multiple laptops, tablets, a projector, a camera and other technology equipment, court records say.
On Friday, Judge Gustafson gave Whitford six-month-suspended sentences for three counts of common scheme unsworn falsification to authorities for lying to pawn shops about owning the stolen property. As recommended in Whitford’s plea deal, the judge dismissed three more counts of unsworn falsification to authorities.
Assistant Public Defender Edward Werner mentioned to the judge that Whitford’s teaching license has been suspended for two years.
Prior to resigning in November, Whitford had been with the district since 2009 and was paid an annual salary of $94,092. Jennifer Smith has taken over directing Indian Education for Billings Public Schools.
In 2011, Whitford was named Montana Indian Educator of the Year. She was cited for her work in Billings and in Great Falls, where she taught for several years before joining SD2.
She also had taught summer school, incorporating American Indian culture into lessons for students.
During her time at SD2, she encouraged and celebrated the successes of American Indian students through programs that included an annual spring barbecue, where American Indian graduates were celebrated and high achievers were awarded eagle feathers.
“You have lost a career that you spent a long time developing,” Judge Gustafson told Whitford. “Certainly you have had plenty of social stigma and those were all brought upon (you) by yourself and your own actions.”