KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — A Sullivan County grand jury has charged suspended Kingsport City Schools (KCS) teacher Michelle Carpenter with 20 counts of felony child abuse and neglect and issued a scathing report on how KCS handled multiple allegations that she mistreated special needs pre-schoolers.
“Their failures directly impacted on how we at the District Attorney’s office as well as law enforcement were able to do our jobs,” Second Judicial District Assistant DA William Harper, who is leading prosecution of Carpenter, told News Channel 11 Wednesday. He said interactions with the school system were “very frustrating.”
Carpenter, who taught at KCS off and on for more than 30 years, surrendered to authorities Wednesday following a grand jury indictment issued May 17. Because the alleged victims were under 8 years old, she is charged with felonies and not misdemeanors — class D felonies in 10 counts and class E felonies in 10 others.
Harper said the class D felonies relate to actual physical abuse of 10 children and are punishable in Tennessee by two to 12 years in prison. The class E felonies apply to the same 10 situations and relate to actions that have an adverse effect on the health and welfare of the child. The alleged abuse took place between August 2021 and March 2022 according to the charges.
Eric and Lauren Montressor are the parents of Toby, who was a 3-year-old in Carpenter’s special needs pre-K class at Andrew Johnson Elementary during the 2021-22 school year and who they say is one of the 10 victims.
“We’ve been pushing for this for over a year now and so it’s nice to finally have, it’s not closure because it’s going to be a while before that, but at least it’s something moving along a path,” Eric Montressor said as Toby, now nearly 5, played nearby.
“And it’s nice to see the Kingsport City Schools administration finally being held a little bit accountable for how they handled this as well,” Montressor said.
Carpenter, 53, reported to the Sullivan County Jail shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday and immediately posted a $25,000 bond. An initial court date on her charges has not yet been set.
KCS spokesman Andy True said in response to an email from News Channel 11 with questions and a copy of the grand jury report that the school system hadn’t received any communication from DA Barry Staubus’s office regarding the investigative findings.
“The administration will review the information which has been provided by WJHL,” he added. Carpenter has been suspended without pay “during the pendency of the investigation,” True told News Channel 11 via text message.
Meanwhile, in its “investigative findings regarding Kingsport City Schools and timely reporting of child abuse,” the grand jury says KCS’s decision to investigate allegations in 2020 against Carpenter without reporting them to the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and the Kingsport Police Department was “contrary to law.”
The report says KCS repeated this violation roughly two years later — the period referenced in the criminal investigation — even though Second Judicial District Attorney General Barry Staubus’s office had sent the schools two separate letters “highlighting that school personnel must avoid conducting an investigation.
“The statute provides detailed protocols and procedures to be followed when there is an allegation of abuse, but all of this was ignored by multiple administrators within the Kingsport City School system,” the report continues.
‘Report it, step out of the way and let the investigators do their job’
Harper said his office’s primary difficulty with KCS came from the system not following state law about reporting suspected child abuse and what should follow those reports. Tennessee law requires anyone, including teachers and school employees, to report suspected child abuse.
“There are people at DCS that are specially trained to investigate child abuse and that’s why when we go into the schools and we do training for them, we tell them ‘number one thing, don’t investigate,'” Harper said.
He said teachers are naturally nurturing and want to help their students, but “the law is pretty clear.”
“‘I know it’s counterintuitive to you, but if you see something, you hear something, you suspect there’s child abuse, just report it, step out of the way and let the investigators do their job,'” he said of the message that’s conveyed to school employees.
That is not what happened in Carpenter’s case not once but twice. A 2022 News Channel 11 investigation found Carpenter was suspected of being “abrasive, rough, demeaning and rude” with 3-year-olds under her care in 2020.
Instead of going to the state with reports from four separate people who reported similar conduct, KCS handled the investigation internally, with then-Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse levying a two-day unpaid suspension against the tenured teacher.
Seven months later, Moorhouse and other area school leaders received letters from Staubus’s office alerting them to a change in Tennessee law regarding reporting of suspected child abuse. It included requirements to report suspected abuse of students who attend school online and mandated schools to have a child abuse coordinator to serve as liaison between the school, DCS and law enforcement.
That Oct. 29, 2020 letter also said “School personnel must avoid conducting an investigation (DA’s emphasis) and should not ask detailed questions … and should immediately notify the school abuse coordinator, DCS and law enforcement.”
The October letter didn’t have the desired effect with Kingsport. Staubus followed up with a March 3, 2021 letter to Moorhouse that said his office had “received information that school personnel are interviewing children and conducting their own investigations.”
Staubus requested a meeting with Moorhouse and KCS’s attorney and also requested a list of designated coordinators to share with DCS and law enforcement.
KCS conducts another internal investigation
More than a year after Staubus’s second letter, on April 1, 2022, Moorhouse suspended Carpenter for a second time after reports to Stacy Edwards, Andrew Johnson’s principal, and KCS Chief Human Resource Officer Jennifer Guthrie. Guthrie and Edwards, who was recently named the system’s principal of the year, had also passed on the reports about Carpenter in 2020.
Moorhouse’s 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.
Eric Montressor said he and his wife didn’t know anything about the situation at the time Carpenter was suspended. Lauren Montressor took Toby to school one morning after Carpenter had been out for several days and “everything was gone out of the classroom,” Eric Montressor said. “Just sterile white walls, half the toys were gone.”
The Montressors and another parent went to Edwards to find out what had happened. When they learned of potential abuse allegations, school employees clammed up, Montressor said.
“We basically were given a wall. They told us nothing. They gave us nothing. Didn’t matter who you talk to, who you emailed.”
Parents weren’t the only ones being left in the dark. DCS, Kingsport police, the DA’s office — none of the appropriate parties who state law says should be notified immediately learned anything for nearly two weeks after KCS started its own probe.
“That was a real problem we had in this case where they waited two weeks,” Harper said. “I mean, bruises are not going to hang around for two weeks for someone to be able to take photos and talk about it.”
“Another thing that causes problems, in this case, you had 3- and 4-year-olds who were mostly nonverbal, who couldn’t go home and tell mom and dad.”
Harper said the previous communications with KCS enhanced his frustration once the Carpenter investigation reached his office.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had not gone through this process of telling them … ‘we need to do it right. Here’s the law,'” he said.
The grand jury made a similar observation in its report.
“The substandard handling of the past and current case is considered egregious by this Grand Jury and represents a systemic failure on the part of the Kingsport City Schools,” the report reads.
‘A blatant disregard of the children’s best interests’
The grand jury report said testimony regarding the abuse’s impact on students was “most disturbing” to its members.
And it said as members asked “many questions” of witnesses (presumably representing the school)” they “felt their answers showed a blatant disregard of the children’s best interests as well as the law.”
“Witnesses admitted to knowing about the statutes, but claimed they also had to consider the interest of the tenured teacher,” the report continued.
Harper said it’s not supposed to work that way.
“Instead of doing what is right and doing what should have been done to protect these children they were doing their own investigation, which I think clearly they had an interest in what was going on because she was an employee of the school system,” he said.
“But at the same time, weighing those two interests, I think clearly the interests of those children should have been put first.”
Eric Montressor said he’s had some good communication this school year with KCS’s new superintendent, Chris Hampton. Moorhouse announced at the end of August 2022 he would resign Oct. 31.
Montressor said he believes there are employees who deserve to be sacked over the situation.
“I think some people need to be held accountable for their actions,” he said. “There’s been some very convenient resignations but I think there’s still a few more who knew a lot of things and didn’t handle this properly, and I think they’re going to see some pressure on them here soon.”
A dancing boy and a determined DA
The Montressors say Toby is doing fine and had a great year in pre-K, still in the city schools. They say he’s progressed by “leaps and bounds” after the previous “lost year of good education.”
He isn’t showing any significant signs of trauma and is beginning to talk more.
“Kids are resilient and they bounce back from a lot of things,” Montressor said as Lauren watched Toby, decked out in a mohawk with Vans shoes and a Guns n Roses t-shirt, do his signature dance to his favorite tune: the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
Toby will be 5 just before school starts back, but his parents will keep him in one more year of pre-K and they’re still trusting the Kingsport schools to deliver a safe, quality education to him.
For his part, Harper said he hopes the grand jury report “opens some eyes to some people who are in leadership positions to say, ‘hey, we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to do better by our children and we’ve got to do better following the law, because there are consequences when you don’t do that.”
Those consequences could have included an ending to this story in which Carpenter wasn’t prosecuted.
“I think law enforcement did an excellent job investigating this case, based upon the fact that they were handicapped from the get-go because of the school system delaying reporting the abuse.”
“Many, many, many interviews were done of lots of people, both within the school system and outside the school system.”
Harper said he hopes the incident leads to a productive dialogue with KCS.
While no one else will be charged criminally, it will remain to be seen whether Staubus’s March 2021 letter had a hint of foreshadowing. He said while his concern was primarily focused on ensuring good investigations, “if school personnel fail to follow the protocols set forth in the statute they could expose themselves and the school system to civil liability.”
As the Montressors avidly read the grand jury report, they zeroed in on part of a sentence in the brief description of some of the “acts of abuse” one witness who worked in Carpenter’s classroom described.
“These actions included … putting her foot on a student’s shin and applying pressure until the student cried to keep his legs still…”
“That’s about Toby,” they said.
Montressor said while the indictment and grand jury report aren’t a “full circle moment,” he believes parents have “the traction we need.”
He expects the process to take up to another year to make it through court proceedings before it actually gets resolved. The Montressors will be paying close attention.
“We will be there for every day of that court case,” he said. “Guaranteed.”
Carpenter will appear in court on July 21 at 9 a.m.