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Winfield praised as teacher before allegations

ALPENA — School records paint a picture of former Thunder Bay Junior High school teacher Heather Winfield as a dedicated professional committed to connecting with her students.

The evaluations depict a different person from the one being portrayed in a days-long hearing last week in the 88th District Court, where Winfield was bound over to 26th Circuit Court on Friday on several criminal sexual conduct charges. Police say Winfield abused her relationship with one of her students by having sex with him beginning in the summer of 2016. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.

Alpena Public Schools records obtained by The News through a Freedom of Information Act request and testimony from her former principal indicate that, until the allegations against her, Winfield was seen by her superiors as a dedicated, innovative teacher who had healthy and effective relationships with her students. Evaluations dating back to Winfield’s hiring in 2013 give her consistently positive marks, rating her as either effective or highly effective in all categories.

In a required self-evaluation, Winfield referred to her classroom environment as a warm and inviting place where students were accepted as an important part of the class.

“I get to know each of my students and allow them to get to know me as a person,” Winfield wrote. “I celebrate their strengths and help them to see their weaknesses as strengths we haven’t developed, yet.”

Winfield’s assessments of her own teaching are supported by evaluations she received from her superiors at APS.

“Your gift as a teacher is to connect with your students,” reads her first evaluation, in 2013.

“You know your students. You are able to create a learning environment in this classroom where students are successful because you have established relationships with your students,” wrote her principal in December 2014.

The latest available evaluation for Winfield was conducted in 2015. That spring, her evaluator wrote, “You take the time to get to know the student. You have genuine interest in their lives.”

Prosecutors say Winfield showered one of her students with gifts and trips before utlimately seducing him into a sexual relationship.

Her attorneys, however, say such allegations are disputed by Winfield’s strong record as a caring educator.

Defense attorney Dan White pointed to Winfield’s positive reviews and her effectiveness in trying a new tactic with a troubled student.

“I think that her record as teacher and her approach to incorrigible students — her approach works,” White told The News. “And I’ll tell you, it’s also one of the keys to our defense of Heather Winfield as it relates to a personal relationship with (her student), and there will be more coming on that.”

The News does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

On the stand Tuesday as a witness for the prosecution, Thunder Bay Junior High Principal Steven Genschaw testified to his impressions of Winfield as a teacher, particularly as a special education teacher for sixth-graders during the 2015-16 school year.

The alleged victim came from what the principal characterized as an extremely horrific background. He had a long history of disciplinary citations in his educational career. According to Genschaw, other teachers at the school had attempted multiple methods of correcting the student’s behavior, with very little success.

Winfield, Genschaw said, used a different approach with the student, creating what he called a connection that had effective results, with the student’s behavioral issues greatly improving by spring 2016.

The beginning of the next school year marked a change in Winfield’s quality of teaching, Genschaw said. He said on the stand that Winfield’s habits as a teacher had gone from being above and beyond what was asked of her to “just doing her job.”

That fall, Winfield talked several times to her immediate supervisor, Jean Kowalski, assistant principal at Thunder Bay Junior High, about struggles with her home life that were impacting her teaching performance, Genschaw said in court.

That was the fall when APS officials were first made aware of a possible inappropriate relationship between Winfield and one of her students.

Winfield was placed on administrative leave in October 2016 while the district investigated. The administration had concluded Winfield at least communicated inappropriately with a student and was prepared to ask the school board to vote on her termination. She resigned from the district before that happened.

APS officials say Winfield received due process.

However, in a letter to Genschaw dated Nov. 19, 2016, after she had resigned from APS, Winfield expressed feelings that she was treated unfairly by the school district.

“I am angry,” Winfield wrote. “Angry that you never backed me up. Angry that a 12-year-old girl’s word was better than mine. Angry that a school system I loved would treat me like dog poo on the bottom of their shoe.”

It isn’t clear from the documents who the 12-year-old girl is, but the alleged victim’s former girlfriend testified in court last week about discovering messages between Winfield and her alleged victim. Winfield’s attorneys have questioned the legitimacy of those messages because the girlfriend had the boy’s password, and the boy had Winfield’s.

In the letter, Winfield accuses Genschaw of betraying her trust after she spoke to him on multiple occasions about “all this junk.”

“You know that I would never hurt a child, especially (the alleged victim),” said Winfield in her letter.

Before being employed at Thunder Bay Junior High, Winfield taught at All Saints Catholic School in Alpena and St. John’s Lutheran School in Hillman, which is now closed.

She was employed by APS during the 2006-07 school year as a Title I teacher.

State records show she remains licensed to teach.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.

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