KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — A Kingsport City Schools (KCS) Special Education teacher is under investigation for “possible child abuse” following reports to the school system, police and state agencies.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) confirmed with News Channel 11 that Michelle Carpenter, who has been a teacher with the Kingsport City Schools system on and off since 1992, is being investigated by DCS as well as their partners in law enforcement.

Upon the filing of a News Channel 11 records request related to any complaints filed against Carpenter, a police report from April 7, 2022, was released listing five students and Carpenter. All names had been redacted by the Kingsport Police Department (KPD).

Police report provided by Kingsport Police Department

The reason for the police report was listed as “possible child abuse.”

KPD Public Information Officer Tom Patton told News Channel 11 Tuesday that all necessary reporting requirements regarding this matter have been met by all parties and organizations involved.

“I can also now confirm that an investigation into the allegations therein is currently underway by our Criminal Investigations Division,” Patton added. “Having said that, pursuant to state law concerning the confidentiality of investigations involving juveniles and any subsequent DCS referrals, absolutely no further information can or will be released.”

Teaching experience

News Channel 11 obtained Carpenter’s personnel file from the KCS system. It showed that she had been employed with the system on and off since the early 1990s.

In October 2016, Carpenter was named to serve as the Special Education Department Chair for the Palmer Early Learning Center for the following school year.

Her personnel file shows Carpenter was transferred from Palmer to John F. Kennedy Elementary School effective immediately in July 2017.

On July 1, 2019, Carpenter was transferred to Andrew Johnson Elementary School when the early intervention program was reportedly moved out of Kennedy. She would continue to serve as an Early Intervention Special Education Pre-Kindergarten teacher for the 3-year-old program at Johnson until 2022.

Carpenter also briefly taught in Scott County, Virginia, and at St. Paul Day School, which is a private institution.

History of reprimand part 1

The first time Carpenter was reprimanded for being “abrasive, rough, demeaning, and rude” with the 3-year-old students in her classroom was in 2020.

On Jan. 31, 2020, Carpenter received a hand-delivered letter of suspension from Superintendent of Schools Jeff Moorhouse, alerting her to a two-day unpaid suspension.

The letter of suspension lists that Johnson Elementary School Principal Dr. Stacy Edwards and Chief Human Resources Officer Jennifer Guthrie received reports from four separate individuals who had been in Carpenter’s classroom “at various times” during the year and “all reported similar conduct.”

Examples of the conduct are quoted directly from Carpenter’s personnel file below:

  1. Speaking to children in a demeaning way with statements such as, ” Now you are going to cry like
    you do all day every day”. When a child was crying for their mother you were heard saying, “Your
    mother is not here. I’m your mother while you’re here.” These statements were reportedly being
    made in a harsh and demeaning tone.

2. “Grabbing”, “jerking” and/ or pulling students in a manner inconsistent with KCS practices,
procedures, and CLASS standards. One such incident reportedly involved holding a child’s face
by “pinching his cheeks together” while telling him to get his hands out of his mouth. Another
incident involved picking up a student under the armpits and “swinging” him around such that his
feet left the floor and sitting him “roughly” on the floor to sit down when he did not sit as directed
with the rest of the class.

3. Talking about students and their families with other staff members in such a way that is
unprofessional such as referring to them as “being on drugs” or in jail.

The letter of suspension noted that the reports “stem from a variety of sources that are not connected to each other and all report similar conduct.”

Moorhouse noted in the letter that such conduct violated the state Teacher Code of Ethics.

“I am issuing a suspension on the grounds of unprofessional conduct, insubordination, neglect of duty, and incompetence,” he wrote in the letter.

She was given five days to make a request for a conference with him to offer a rebuttal.

Carpenter’s personnel file housed the letter of rebuttal she wrote to Moorhouse on February 7, 2020.

She noted that she had built a high standard of teaching based on evaluations by various administrations over the 13 years of special needs education she had under her belt at the time.

Carpenter also noted that she had previously been named a building level ‘Teacher of the Year’ with the school system.

The following statement is a direct quote from the abovementioned rebuttal letter:

“Unfortunately, the statements made do not originate from frequent visitors to the classroom nor
from those who are familiar with the early intervention 3-year old program. There is also a lack
of knowledge of students in the program or their disabilities, and no real experience with the
day- to- day situations we encounter. Based on their brief encounters and claims, I do believe
there are misunderstandings or lack of understanding of developmentally appropriate methods
of communication with young students as well as ones who may have limited expressive and
receptive language, sensory processing issues, attention deficits, cognitive deficits, and
behavioral issues that impair their level of understanding.”

Michelle Carpenter, Feb. 7, 2020 letter of rebuttal to suspension

She lists modes of delivery to convey messages to students with special needs in her explanation for utilizing methods that may have been deemed “rough” or “rude.”

“If my actions were interpreted as “rough”, “harsh”, or “rude” by individuals, I can assure you,
that was certainly NOT my intent. I do want to identify relevant factors that have impacted my
personal wellbeing by placing increased levels of stress on me over the course of the school year,
and likely contribute to the manner in which I have responded to students, and possibly some
adults encountered throughout the day,” Carpenter wrote.

Carpenter noted that her “co-teacher” had been dealing with an “ongoing, serious family issue,” that had resulted in the other teacher being “increasingly absent” and led to what Carpenter referred to as “drastic increases in job-related responsibilities.”

She notes in the rebuttal — seen in the direct quote below — that she admits to the actions that led to the suspension.

“As you can see, there has been much transpire since the beginning of the school year, which
initially created a somewhat manageable level of stress; however with the absorption of
additional responsibilities due to loss of personnel and continued lack of planning time, my stress
level has increased dramatically, and is likely a contributor to my recent demeanor. I do not say
this to condone my actions, however I do believe it provides an explanation.”

Michelle Carpenter, Feb. 7, 2020 letter of rebuttal to suspension

Carpenter points out the importance of communication in her rebuttal letter, adding that “one cannot correct what is not made known to them.”

She said “a suspension without notice and discussion of the issues beforehand is unduly harsh,
especially when one considers the narrow period of time within which my performance was
evaluated and the comparison to long term and more consistent high levels of performance.”

History of reprimand part 2

Carpenter on April 1, 2022, received yet another letter of suspension from Dr. Moorhouse following reports to Edwards and Guthrie at Johnson Elementary School for the second time.

The letter shows that both parents and staff members reported that they observed Carpenter being “physically ‘rough,’ demeaning and rude with the 3-year-old Special Education students” in her classroom, “many of whom are autistic.”

Moorhouse noted that Edwards and Guthrie had received reports from several different individuals who had been in Carpenter’s classroom at various times that academic year and all had reported similar conduct.

Letter of suspension from KCS Superintendent of Schools Jeff Moorhouse to Michelle Carpenter on April 1, 2022.

Examples of the conduct are quoted directly from Carpenter’s personnel file below:

  1. Speaking to children in a demeaning way with statements such as calling a student a “jerk” when
    this student ripped a book in the book center. This student has autism.

2. “Grabbing”, “jerking” and/or pulling students in a manner inconsistent with KCS practices.
procedures and CLASS standards. One such incident reportedly involved pushing/forcing a child
to the floor on their stomach when they would not immediately comply with your direction to lay
down for “quiet time.” Another example reportedly involved pulling a student by their wrist to
[forcibly] sit them on the toilet, such that the child was fearful of returning to school. Reports were
also made of you kicking/shoving chairs while students were sitting in them.

3. Talking about students with other staff members in such a way that is unprofessional such as
referring to them as being a “twit” or “stupid.”

The letter — as did Carpenter’s first letter of suspension — noted that the accusations had stemmed “from a variety of sources that are not connected to each other and all report consistent and similar conduct.”

“I am issuing a suspension on the grounds of unprofessional conduct, insubordination, neglect of duty and incompetence,” Moorhouse wrote.

This time around, Carpenter was transferred from her position at Johnson Elementary School to a position in the Dobyns-Bennett EXCEL program.

Carpenter’s personnel file housed another letter of rebuttal she wrote to Moorhouse on April 12, 2022.

As in the first rebuttal, Carpenter states that her then-15-years of teaching experience have been exemplary, and noted her shining evaluation conducted by various previous administrations.

She does not mention her previous suspension.

She wrote in her rebuttal that she cannot give exact explanations or reasons for her actions for the examples listed, as she states the individuals who filed the reports of misconduct had been left anonymous, and so she was unsure of the exact instances noted.

She claimed in her rebuttal that a “teaching assistant responded to the situation” and brought the book to her after taking it from the student. Carpenter wrote that at the time of the incident, she was elsewhere in the classroom occupied with setting up an activity. She then attempted to repair the book when the TA brought it to her.

“As I recall, any conversation that took place based on that incident was between me and the teaching assistant, not between me and the student,” she wrote.

In regards to the example given in her suspension letter about “forcing a child to the floor when
not complying with a directive to lie down for a short quiet time,” Carpenter said there had been two or three occasions that she had ever employed the use of a 15-minute “quiet time,” accompanied by a “period of soft music with visual images on an interactive board and dimmed lighting, or allowing students to look quietly at books while resting,” to give students “an opportunity to rest and reset their behavior.”

She wrote that she does not recall ever “using force to get a child to lie down during a quiet time.”

Carpenter wrote in detail in her rebuttal letter what modes and techniques she would employ to attain the goal of quieting the children down.

“Regarding the situation referencing a student who was pulled by the wrist and forcibly sat on a toilet, I am unable to respond with certainty as I cannot recall an incident with a specific student,” she wrote about the next issue addressed in her letter of suspension.

Carpenter claimed that the majority of toilet duties were handled by TAs and that she would only provide occasional assistance.

“I can recall two recent occurrences in which I supervised toileting, both involving children who had
accidents. Additionally, in both instances, the only individuals in the bathroom were myself and the child in need of cleaning up. Both students were in the process of toilet training and required some level of assistance with this skill, which included using verbal prompts, visuals, and/or physical support to follow a toileting routine, including removal of soiled clothing and/or redressing with clean clothing, and at times, assistance in getting seated on the toilet.”

Michelle Carpenter, April 12, 2022 letter of rebuttal to suspension

She listed two examples in which she was responsible for toilet duties.

The first she describes as helping a “larger preschooler,” who she said, “sometimes struggles to get onto the toilet due to the toilet being a full-size toilet with a removable potty seat used to reduce the opening size of the seat.”

She explained that the “potty seat” often moves, eliminating its purpose by not limiting the size of the toilet opening, creating the danger for a child to fall into the toilet. In these instances, it is not uncommon for staff to pick a child up to sit them on the seat, which is the action Carpenter wrote that she took.

Carpenter wrote the following excuse for “grabbing” a child during potty time:

“I released my hold on the child before having him fully seated due to a sharp pain in my hand and arm, which also caused the potty seat to shift and the child to lose his balance on the seat. I reached for the child and held onto him to provide support, removed him from the toilet to adjust the potty seat into place, and carefully lifted him back onto the toilet.”

Michelle Carpenter, April 12, 2022 letter of rebuttal to suspension

She listed another example of supervising a student in the restroom. This student, she explained, was removing their clothing due to having an accident. She wrote that she grabbed the child and gave him “physical support” to prevent an incident involving feces from occurring.

In regard to the report concerning kicking/shoving chairs with students seated in them, Carpenter said she had “tapped the back of a chair” using her toes or foot in a “playful gesture” while saying “knock knock,” to “engage students in a communication exchange.”

Carpenter wrote that she had in the past also “gently tapped” the back of a student’s chair to stop the student from “engaging in a dangerous behavior that could result in physical harm to the child” when her hands had been full.

She also noted an incident with a child who was “becoming increasingly physically aggressive and forcefully pushed away from a table” in a manner she deemed threatening.

“I interpreted [it] as an attempt to hit me in the knees/ legs with his chair or to gain physical proximity to me to hit or kick me. My response was to stop him by holding my foot up to block the chair from hitting my knees/ legs and push the chair away as I perceived this behavior as a threat.”

Michelle Carpenter, April 12, 2022 letter of rebuttal to suspension

Lastly, Carpenter wrote in her rebuttal letter that she has continued to maintain “age-appropriate and respectful communications” with her students. She did admit, however, that in speaking informally with staff members about her 3-year-old students, she had “used terms that may be considered demeaning or derogatory in describing student behavior such as, ‘…was acting like a twit today’ or ‘that was just stupid.'”

She wrote the following regarding her conduct with staff:

“My comments were not intended to inflict harm, but merely my description or thoughts on happenings that occurred during the work day. I let my guard down and did not consider that my words may offend my coworkers. For this, I do apologize and commit to maintaining a higher level of professionalism in my conversations with co-workers and making more appropriate word choices.”

Michelle Carpenter, April 12, 2022 letter of rebuttal to suspension

Moorehouse sent a letter to Carpenter the next day in response to their meeting on April 12. Moorehouse stated in that letter that they met “regarding your suspension issued for March 30-April 1, 2022.”

He wrote that after meeting with her, he also considered what she wrote in her rebuttal and also reconsidered all the information that was provided for the April 1 letter.

“It is my determination that the three day unpaid suspension will stand. We are not taking further disciplinary action based on the information available at the time of your suspension.”

Jeff Moorehouse, April 13, 2022 letter

What’s next?

Her personnel file revealed that Carpenter took two weeks of sick leave following her suspension.

She was transferred to the Dobyns-Bennett EXCEL program to work as a special education teacher, but Kingsport City Schools Assistant Superintendent Andy True notified News Channel 11 that she took leave for the remainder of the school year.

The school system was not at liberty to release the reason or length of her leave.

True said not every parent had been notified of the alleged abuse in 2020 or this year but that parent notification is handled on a case-by-case basis.

He added that any further disciplinary action would depend on the outcome of the investigation.

News Channel 11 had reached out to several parents, as well as to Carpenter, for on-camera interviews.

Many parents chose not to go on the record and Carpenter has yet to respond.