JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A Sullivan County grand jury and assistant district attorney aren’t the only ones emphasizing the importance of following child abuse reporting protocols in the wake of a Kingsport City Schools (KCS) teacher being indicted on multiple abuse counts.

A legislative specialist with the Tennessee Disability Coalition (TDC) says it’s “vital” mandatory child abuse reporting rules are followed, and that they’re designed to get the best outcomes when children suffer abuse. In Tennessee, the rules require immediate reporting to Department of Children’s Services (DCS) officials and law enforcement if abuse is suspected, and they prohibit an organization from conducting its own investigation.

“If you care deeply about kids, it’s your responsibility to protect them as well,” TDC’s Jeff Strand said. “The mandated reporting statutes, the requirements around that are vital to ensuring that the kids that you teach and care deeply for are safe.”

In concert with its indictment of Michelle Carpenter on 20 felony counts, the grand jury issued a report accusing KCS of ignoring detailed protocols and procedures to be followed when there is an abuse allegation.

The report mentions the specific prohibition against conducting an investigation, saying it “was again ignored in this current case,” and notes KCS administrators “conducted their own internal investigation and waited nearly two weeks before notifying the Department of Children’s services and law enforcement.”

James Strand

Strand, a former special education teacher, said those standards become doubly important in situations that involve non-verbal students. A number of the 10 special needs preschoolers Michelle Carpenter is accused of verbally and physically abusing were described as non-verbal.

“We know that child abuse is allowed to continue when kids aren’t able to communicate what’s going on, whether the child is verbal or nonverbal,” said Strand, the coalition’s coordinator of government and external affairs. “That extra layer in which there’s no way that they really can, that’s absolutely makes that child more vulnerable, and it makes the obligations of the adults around them all the more important.”

The grand jury’s report also referenced communication challenges, saying the delayed reporting “hampered law enforcement’s ability to promptly begin an investigation in a case where most of the witnesses/victims had no ability to communicate and signs of observable injuries disappeared quickly.”

Following the reporting requirements doesn’t prevent educators from helping children who may be part of an abuse investigation, Strand said. They just need to continue caring for them without intruding into work that other experts are doing.

“You might not always be as objective as you want to be in a tough situation like this but it is absolutely vital that you follow that law to a tee because we know that it protects kids,” Strand said.

He doesn’t get the sense that there’s a systemic problem with school systems flouting those mandatory reporting regulations. Strand said having them in place protects schools and people working in them from potential liability — but he understands why there can be various reasons, while not valid ones, that schools would be tempted to go their own way.

“I would say that schools want to avoid looking bad, especially in the public. So I can see where a principal or administration might make a poor decision that they think is protecting the image of the school or the rights of a teacher,” Strand said. “But they’re really just continuing allowing harm to continue to the child.”

Strand is a major advocate for schools developing effective communication pipelines with parents and guardians about everything from behavior to academic progress. He said good schools making a concerted effort to maximize that communication may make it less nerve-wracking to communicate effectively when really difficult things are going on.

“In an instance like this in which the school seemed to kind of recoil from the idea of communicating this obviously unpleasant news,” Strang said. “That looks to me more like we’re protecting ourselves, rather than protecting the best interest of the child.”

Tennessee Code Annotated 49-6-1601 covers child abuse reporting as it specifically relates to schools. It follows this explanatory letter that Second Judicial District Attorney Barry Staubus sent to KCS Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse (and other school systems) in the fall of 2020.