A former Laurel Middle School assistant principal was stripped of her educator's licenses by the Montana Board of Public Instruction in July after sending “partially nude” pictures to a former student who was still a minor during the 2016-17 school year. The pictures later surfaced “at the school.”
Sarah Sheldon had her teaching and administrative licenses suspended for three years, and she will need a recommendation from a professional counselor if she reapplies for education licensure. Before it was suspended, her license was set to expire in 2020; it will have expired once the suspension is lifted.
According to a presentation from Office of Public Instruction Educator Licensure Program Manager Kristine Thatcher, Laurel’s superintendent Linda Filpula notified the Office of Public Instruction about the misuse of technology involving a former district student on Dec. 8. Sheldon was placed on leave Dec. 1 and resigned the next day.
"There are always two sides to every story and extenuating circumstances, as well," Sheldon said Thursday. "I have chosen not to defend myself in order to protect my family. Please understand that, and respect us going forward."
In December, Sheldon acknowledged “very poor judgement” during a conference call with state officials in which she described the situation, but “she had no desire to surrender her license,” Thatcher said. An initial agreement to suspend her license was reached but rejected by the board in January.
Thatcher said Sheldon accepted a Facebook friend request from the student in September, realizing that it was a former student from about five years ago. The student, who was 17 at the time, began “flirtatious” communication that lasted several weeks. When Sheldon was “home alone, during one evening, drinking,” the student requested pictures of Sheldon.
They exchanged cellphone numbers and she sent “partially nude photos,” Thatcher said.
The next day, Sheldon realized what had happened and tried to contact the student. He didn’t respond, and their correspondence ceased. The student had previously dropped out of school, OPI officials said at a January meeting.
About 10 weeks later the photos surfaced through a “third party,” Thatcher said. Sheldon hadn’t reported the messages to Laurel school officials.
No in-person meetings between Sheldon and the student occurred to the knowledge of OPI officials.
OPI “occasionally” reports incidents to law enforcement or Child Protective Services “depending on the allegations,” OPI attorney Kyle Moen said. It’s the board’s responsibility to rule on issues like suspension or revocation of educators’ licenses.
“It is with a heavy heart that we have to even bring these things before us, but it’s the right thing to do,” said board chairwoman Shannon Carroll.
When contacted about the case on Wednesday, Filpula declined commenting further.
The board previously considered Sheldon’s case in January, rejecting an agreement at the time. That agreement only included Sheldon’s administrative license, not her teaching license, something that Thatcher called an “oversight.”
The case was presented in a speedy manner that didn’t follow the usual process, though board attorney Rob Stutz said he believed it was sufficient.
“The board has flexibility in this case,” he said.
The board decided to investigate further and conduct a more formal hearing, which occurred at its July 13 meeting. Board members also wanted to consider more severe penalties, including revocation.
The initial agreement was reached under then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau but signed by Kyle Moen, the attorney for current Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. In January, Arntzen said she would move for an emergency suspension at the board’s request while they considered the case.