PORT ORCHARD — A former Bainbridge Island School District teacher and coach alleged to have carried on a romantic relationship with a then-high school student was charged with a felony in Kitsap County Superior Court and is summoned to appear Aug. 31.
Nicole Elizabeth Hebner, 35, was charged with first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor.
The crime describes a relationship between a school employee and a person between 16 and 21 years old who is more than five years younger.
The age of consent in the state is raised from 16 to 18 when the partners are teacher and student.
The student spoke to the Kitsap Sun for a story in January and said she does not consider herself a victim. The student said she was older than 18 during the relationship and said it was consensual.
Reached Tuesday and first informed of the charges by the Kitsap Sun, the student said she is trying to move on but wants to talk with Hebner when the case is settled.
“I still care a lot about her and don’t think this is right at all,” the former student wrote in a message. “She shouldn’t be going through this!”
It is the second time in recent years that a district employee, who also graduated from Bainbridge High School, was prosecuted for having a sexual relationship with a student.
Hebner taught at Sakai Intermediate School – and is still listed as a 5th and 6th grade health and physical education teacher on the school’s website -- and coached sports teams at Bainbridge High School in which the student participated. She is a 2000 graduate of the high school.
There are no allegations that Hebner engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Sakai students.
The district announced in August 2016 allegations of “inappropriate interactions” and violations of the district’s policies regarding sexual harassment and staff-student boundaries between a staff member and a student. Hebner was then placed on administrative leave. The district announced later that month that a police investigation was under way.
Over the past year, the district has not made any further statements about the case.
On Tuesday, district Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen said the district responded immediately to allegations when it was apprised of them and fully cooperated with investigators.
"Obviously the charges in the documents are disturbing and very unsettling," he said.
The district has on-going training about maintaining boundaries between staff and students and has brought in a speaker to address the issue to further emphasize boundary maintenance.
It established a button on the district website that allows for anonymous reporting. Also, the district instituted the use of a mobile phone app that allows students and district staff to communicate via text — a convenient, efficient way to communicate, espeically for ahtletes and coaches — but allows the district to store the messages.
Public records from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction found Hebner resigned Sept. 13 and provided details of the allegations. Those include a district official reporting Hebner had engaged in a sexual relationship with the student.
The Sun made requests to Bainbridge Police through the state Public Records Act, but was told that the investigation was still underway, and therefore exempt from disclosure.
In charging documents, a Bainbridge Police detective wrote that Hebner told others of the relationship, which took place been June 2015 and June 2016, the student’s senior year, during which she turned 19. According to court documents, the former student told an investigator the two were involved in a sexual relationship.
An analysis of cell phones shows multiple contacts between the two, showing they were spending time together, along with photos of the two women.
The student, who is not being named by the Kitsap Sun because she is considered a sexual assault victim, said at the time she had been left in limbo, prohibited from contacting Hebner because of the criminal investigation. The initial investigator on the case resigned after being accused of unrelated misconduct, something the student found out when she tried to contact him.
There are no allegations Hebner lied about the relationship, and the student told the Kitsap Sun the two discussed the investigation and agreed to be truthful.
In December 2015 former Bainbridge High School science teacher Jessica Fuchs, then 26 and a 2007 graduate of the high school, pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor, communication with a minor for immoral purposes and witness tampering. She was sentenced to serve eight months in jail, which came from the witness tampering charge.
Fuchs landed the job with her alma mater in summer 2014 despite having no professional teaching experience. Bainbridge police began investigating her in February 2015. She was convicted of encouraging the student to lie and went so far as to submit a document to Bainbridge Municipal Court claiming she passed a polygraph examination.
In Hebner's case, the charges were filed Aug. 3, along with a summons for her to appear in Kitsap County Superior Court later this month.
Copyright 2017 Kitsap Sun