The founder of The Center for Teaching and Learning will avoid jail time for a series of seven shoplifting incidents if she follows certain conditions for a year.
Nancie M. Atwell, 67, of Southport, was sentenced to four months in jail, all suspended, a year of administrative release, and 250 hours of community service during a hearing at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Wiscasset on Monday, Nov. 26.
Atwell had previously pleaded guilty to seven counts of class E theft by unauthorized taking in connection with incidents of shoplifting from Lincoln County businesses in 2016 and 2017.
Atwell established The Center for Teaching and Learning, a private elementary school in Edgecomb, in 1990. She is the author of several books about education, including the bestseller “In the Middle.” In March 2015, she was the first recipient of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.
The conditions of Atwell’s administrative release bar her from the stores where she shoplifted: Ames Supply in Wiscasset and Renys in Damariscotta.
She must continue treatment for kleptomania, which Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines as “an abnormal, persistent impulse or tendency to steal, not prompted by need.”
She must complete the 250 hours of community service at any nonprofit other than CTL under supervision from someone other than a relative.
District Court Judge Paul D. Mathews presided at the hearing.
“I don’t want that in any way to discourage you from returning to CTL. That is not the point. That should not be understood in any way, because that would be the opposite of what I think,” Mathews said to Atwell.
Family members said Atwell has severed her relationship with the school. However, as of Tuesday, Nov. 27, the school’s website refers to her as its current writing support teacher.
Atwell first pleaded guilty to a single count of class E theft by unauthorized taking in June 2016, after taking a $14.99 shirt from Renys on March 30 of that year.
As part of her plea deal, she entered an agreement in which the court would dismiss the charge in two years if she followed certain terms, including the completion of a psychological evaluation and, if necessary, counseling; proof of donation of her $1 million prize to CTL in accordance with her pledge to do so; and the completion of 100 hours of community service.
Such agreements, known as deferred dispositions, also require defendants not to commit any new crimes. The two-year term would have ended in June 2018.
Atwell complied with most terms of the agreement, according to Assistant District Attorney Katherine MacRae. She completed community service and psychological testing and counseling, and has given the prize money to the school.
Over a year after entering the agreement, however, she was charged with six new counts of class E theft by unauthorized taking at Ames Supply. Surveillance cameras recorded each incident, MacRae said.
On Aug. 21, 2017, she stole a dog leash; Sept. 8, dog treats and dog toys; Sept. 11, dog treats; Sept. 20, a dog toy; Sept. 22, dog treats; and Oct. 4, a basket of flowers from an outdoor display.
Most of the items sell for about $6, some $12-14. The most expensive item was the dog leash, at about $28, according to Portland attorney Richard Berne, who represented Atwell. In total, the items cost less than $100.
Mathews took several minutes to explain his sentence.
“If the court doesn’t recognize mental illness in this case, then it is in some alternate reality, because this is not about dog biscuits,” Mathews said.
“I’m not going to play amateur psychologist. I’m here to do a sentence, but I start with the point that, what do you do to a person who dedicates her life for over 40 years to children?” he said.
Atwell’s conduct stemmed from mental illness, Mathews said. He said Atwell did not think “about the economics” of the crimes, which he described as “inconsistent with everything that she is.”
MacRae recommended seven days in jail and 250 hours of community service, not at CTL or under a relative’s supervision. Atwell performed her previous community service at CTL under the supervision of her daughter, Anne Atwell Merkel, a teacher at the school.
MacRae said she based the recommendation on several factors, including Atwell’s age, lack of criminal history, the nature and frequency of the offenses, her payment of restitution to the victims, and her mental health diagnosis.
“Some period of incarceration is warranted in this case given the nature of … the offenses and the time period in which they occurred,” MacRae said. “I think the general deterrence provision is important here and should not be forgotten in the court’s consideration.”
About 10 family members, longtime friends, and colleagues were present in support of Atwell. Prior to the hearing, letters for support had been sent to the court by some of the people present and others who did not attend the hearing.
Six read letters on Atwell’s success as an educator, struggle with mental illness, and progress in therapy.
Atwell read her statement last.
“I’m guilty of shoplifting and I deeply regret my actions and the hurt I caused,” Atwell said.
In addition to kleptomania, she has been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. The disorder is “defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“I medicated my depression with alcohol,” Atwell said.
“My diagnoses aren’t an excuse for the shoplifting. This is my reality,” Atwell said.
Atwell said she is in psychotherapy focusing on shoplifting and is taking medication for her mental illnesses.
Berne was pleased with the sentence.
“I thought it demonstrated incredible wisdom and balance in achieving a result that we believe strongly meets the ends of justice,” he said after the hearing.