NEW BOSTON, Texas — A former teacher's aide testified Wednesday that she didn't know school district policy prohibited staff other than teachers from having sex with students.
Ashlynn Faye Bell, 24, pleaded guilty Tuesday to two counts of improper relationship between educator and student involving two boys who were 17 in the fall of 2019 and to two counts of sexual assault of a child involving a boy who was 16 in the fall of 2019. Each of the charges is punishable by two to 20 years in a Texas prison.
A jury of 12 women was chosen Tuesday to decide what Bell's punishment should be. They began hearing testimony Wednesday at the Bowie County courthouse in New Boston before 202nd District Judge John Tidwell.
The state rested its case after eliciting testimony from Bell's three victims, all of whom were students at Texas High School during the time Bell worked there as an instructional aide in the 2019/2020 school year. The jury heard as well from an English teacher who brought Bell's misconduct to the attention of school administrators, an investigator with the New Boston Police Department and from the mother of one of Bell's victims.
"She has taken everything from me. The way I look at my son. You never think this is going to happen to you," the mother testified under questioning from First Assistant District Attorney Kelley Crisp. "They're kids and they don't understand. I wish he could see what I see."
The mother told the jury she is now fearful and anxious about her younger children going to school, particularly her younger son. She said that when she learned Bell was pregnant with a child who is now six months old, she feared her son might be the father and contemplated what that would mean to their lives. None of Bell's victims are the father of her youngest child.
All three of the victims testified under questioning from Crisp and Assistant District Attorney Lauren Richards that Bell initiated contact with them on SnapChat, a social media application that allows members to share photos and exchange messages. The victims testified that Bell arranged to pick them up in the middle of the night and drive them to her home in New Boston for sexual encounters in November 2019, often with Bell's 3-year-old daughter in the car.
Bell was the first witness called for the defense by Texarkana lawyer Bruce Condit. She testified that all three victims lied about her efforts to connect with them on social media and arrange for sex.
"They pursued me," Bell testified, her voice rising.
Bell testified that she is now in counseling and has learned she has "problems with boundaries" and claimed that she thought all three boys were 18 when she had sex with them.
Under cross examination by Crisp, Bell persisted in her claim that she was pursued by all three victims and that she was unaware of school policy forbidding staff from communicating with students on social media or engaging in sex with them. Crisp showed Bell and the jury documents from Texarkana Independent School District that showed Bell completed new employee training that included sexual harassment of employees and students and rules concerning social media.
Bell's signature appeared on the documents and Bell scored 90% on a test covering the training material.
"Are you telling me and this jury that someone has to tell you not to have sex with kids," Crisp asked Bell.
Bell replied, "Yes. I should have read the handbook."
Under questioning from Condit, Licensed Professional Counselor Melissa Pierce testified that she has diagnosed Bell with an adjustment disorder and that a psychologist has diagnosed her with dependent personality disorder. Under cross examination by Richards, Pierce agreed that the information she uses in her work with Bell comes from Bell.
"I can only work with what they give me," Pierce said.
Other witnesses to testify for the defense included family friends and Bell's mother, who is currently an assistant principal at Texas High School. Bell's mother said the criminal case has caused her family to feel "shock" and "embarrassment."
The defense witnesses testified that probation would allow Bell to continue in her counseling and be a mother to her children. If the jury sentences Bell to 10 or fewer years and if they recommend it, Bell could receive a probated sentence.
The defense is expected to call additional witnesses Thursday. Once the defense has rested the state may call additional rebuttal witnesses.
Bell is currently free on a $150,000 bond.