KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – Imagine scrolling through your social media feed or flipping through the television channels only to land upon a news story regarding “possible child abuse” allegations with the photo of a teacher who looks eerily familiar to you. And then it dawns on you that the person in the photo was your special needs child’s teacher.

This was the reality for several parents who spoke with News Channel 11 after an investigation into Kingsport special education teacher Michelle Carpenter revealed two unpaid suspensions following allegations of “possible child abuse,” as well as a police report listing the same.

Carpenter is now at the center of an ongoing investigation by the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) and the Kingsport Police Department (KPD) Criminal Investigations Division.

KPD Public Information Officer Tom Patton said in a statement that “due to the sensitive nature of the allegations, the minor ages of those involved, and other special circumstances, investigations of this nature can take somewhat longer than others to sort out.”

Parents with kids who had been Carpenter’s students since she was moved to Johnson Elementary School in 2019 told News Channel 11 that there had been a history of alleged or assumed abuse in her classroom for years.

Kylie Connelly is pictured with her son, Oliver. Photo Courtesy: Connelly.

But they did not all know about the extent of the abuse allegations.

“I had no idea about any of this,” said Kylie Connelly.

Her son, Oliver, attended Carpenter’s class in the 2019 school year.

Five children were named as victims in a police report filed in April citing “possible child abuse” by Carpenter.

Eric Montressor lit up as he spoke of his happy-hearted 4-year-old son, Toby, but that pride and happiness quickly dampened as the father spoke of what his nonverbal, autistic son must have endured.

“We didn’t know anything had happened with Miss Carpenter until she just wasn’t in school one day for a couple of days straight and then all of a sudden all this stuff was off the walls. All the decorations had gone home, although there was just it was a very plain bleached-looking classroom,” he said.

It was then that he began emailing with Kingsport City Schools (KCS) human resources department and was instructed to request Carpenter’s personnel file, just as News Channel 11 was.

This was before he was made aware that his son was part of a potential abuse investigation. He was shocked to read the two suspension letters Carpenter was issued in 2020 and again in April of this year.

“That was the first time we actually saw any concrete anything of what had happened in that year, and we’re sitting there reading through and I’m like, ‘That was my kid,'” Montressor said. “That was probably was probably my kid too. And it’s a little heart-wrenching to read that.”

In a statement to News Channel 11, Kingsport school officials said, “KCS has met with the parents of children specific to the alleged misconduct to inform them of allegations and provide as much information as we are able to provide by law.”

That law is TCA 49-6-1601, which changed in 2020.

A previous version of the law stated that parents had to be notified of any alleged abuse in the classroom within 24 hours, and stated that “in no event may the notice be later than 24 hours from the time the report was made.”

The newest version of the law states that “if a school teacher, school official, or other school personnel has knowledge or reasonable cause to suspect that a child who attends the school may be a victim of child abuse or child sexual abuse sufficient to require reporting pursuant to § 37-1-403 or § 37-1-605, then the school teacher, school official, or other school personnel must follow the procedures outlined in subsection (d).”

In subsection (d), it states that “[s]chool child abuse coordinators, school teachers, school officials, and other school personnel shall not provide any information relevant to the suspected child abuse or child sexual abuse to the child’s parent or guardian, and must refer any questions from the child’s parent or guardian to the investigating law enforcement agency and the department of children’s services.”

Tennessee State Representative Mark White has been the chair of the House Education Administration Committee for nine years. He was over the committee that changed the language in the law.

“A lot of times we do things in the state and of course we run this by the Department of Children Services and the other ones that it would affect, and sometimes we find out a bit later federal code, we kind of don’t gel,” White said. “I think we had to do something this year to kind of gel between federal law and state law.”

He explained the chain of command for abuse notification is the school system’s child abuse coordinator, DCS, and law enforcement should all first be notified before the parents are then contacted.

“Federal law mandates disclosure where they were supposed to notify strictly law enforcement and departure services and they are to notify that there’s a breakdown in the chain of command there that’s what’s probably happening,” White said. “There’s no reason why parents should not be notified that something has happened at school and their child and they never know about it.”

According to KCS human resources department, the district has a designated child abuse coordinator at each location in addition to the Chief Student Services Officer, who oversees a wide range of matters related to student services. 

Eric Montressor with his son, Toby. Photo Courtesy: Montressor.

Parents told News Channel 11 that the school system didn’t provide many details because the law limits their ability to do so.

“The law that’s been maybe misinterpreted here is a method by where you can protect all parties as you get there,” White said. “But DCS should be notified law enforcement should be notified, and they should then take the allegations to the parents. And they handle it because they’re the professionals.”

Montressor was upset to hear of the law change because he felt the school system should have shared more information with parents.

“I mean, based on the way that this law worked in this case, and how much more helpful that would have been to get at least some information on what actually happened in the classroom, even if they couldn’t tell us anything else about what they were doing,” he said. “Just enough to know what decisions we needed to make as a parent do we need to take him to a psychologist do we need to like do anything else to make sure that our child was happy and healthy?”

In terms of law enforcement’s notifying parents, KPD PIO Patton sent the following statement to News Channel 11:

“Every case involving allegations of child abuse is different, so those are handled on a case by case basis. While there can be necessary exceptions, as a general rule, once a case involving allegations of child abuse is referred to the Kingsport Police Department Criminal Investigations Division, assuming the parent or guardian is not a suspect, then the assigned Detective would reach out to the parent or guardian, notify them of the allegations (if they were not already aware), and arrange for a time to meet with them and conduct a forensic interview with the child (if feasible or appropriate dependent upon age and circumstances) in cooperation with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Sullivan County. But again, I want to emphasize that this would not happen until the case is actually referred to law enforcement for investigation.”

KPD PIO Tom Patton

‘The Puzzle From Hell’

Parents of children who were or may have been the subject of potential abuse have been swapping stories to find out more information about what exactly happened in the four walls of Carpenter’s classroom.

Pictured here is Crystal Stanley’s daughter, Emma, who was a student in Carpenter’s class. Photo credit: Stanley.

Crystal Stanley’s daughter, Emma, was also listed as a victim in the police report filed against Carpenter in April.

“My 3-year-old non-verbal daughter who has Autism was smacked very hard by Michelle Carpenter,” Stanley said. “Thank God that another teacher caught her do it.  I’m very heartbroken that I trusted KCS to take care of our children and this is what happened.

“I know she is still being investigated, and I pray that all the kids involved get the justice they deserve. Emma is non-verbal; she can’t speak and would not be able to tell me if something happened to her. I want answers to why the school system continued to keep letting her get suspended and sliding her from school to school.”

Stanley, like many other parents, pointed out that Emma’s demeanor completely changed when she was in Carpenter’s class.

“Every day she cried as soon as I turn on the road to take her to school,” she said. “She cried throughout the day, and she would be crying when I picked her up. As soon as they switched teachers, she stopped. She was happy going to school.

“She would run right in, smiling and never cried again. That’s when my gut feeling kicked in and I knew something was going on. I had bad feelings about this teacher from day one,” she said.

“He was the kid that was crying he didn’t want to leave. At Johnson, he was ready to go as soon as you picked him up,” Connelly agreed of her son, Oliver.

“Toby always loved school, but I would say that he had a lot more days where he left the classroom, irritated or in a mood before Miss Carpenter was reassigned,” Montressor added of his son, Toby. “Once they put another teacher in there it has been night and day.”

An April letter of suspension stated Carpenter called a student a “jerk” for ripping a book.

“We told them at the beginning of the year, that he had a pension for ripping up books; it’s the phase he’s in right now; you should probably watch him around books,” Montressor said. “And so to see that in that write-up that she grabbed him by his cheeks and called him a little jerk for ripping up a book — that’s a lot to think about.”

Another parent of a child listed in the report told News Channel 11 that her son is also non-verbal and had trouble potty-training while he was in Carpenter’s class.

The letter of reprimand also mentioned Carpenter reportedly pulled a student by their wrist to forcibly sit them on the toilet.

“There is no reason that he would suddenly be terrified of the potty,” the parent said. “He never had been scared of it previously. But after the week that I told her that we were potty training, he was petrified to even go near a toilet.”

Oliver participated in virtual learning with Carpenter during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy: Connelly.

Back in 2019, Connelly explained that her son, Oliver, was still having a difficult time using words to express his feelings. She recalled an incident in which Carpenter accused Oliver of bullying.

“When he was that age, he still didn’t quite understand feelings, and he communicated them by colors and numbers,” Connelly explained. “If he was feeling sad, he would say I’m blue or I’m feeling zero. He would give you a scale of color or a number instead of saying I’m feeling sad.”

She said she told Carpenter this when he started school at Johnson Elementary.

“Miss Carpenter had reported Oliver to the principal because he told another kid that they were zero,” she said.

Naturally, Connelly said she was furious about the misunderstanding.

“I communicated with her — I actually called and talked to her and she said, ‘Well, he called another kid zero; that’s bullying. We don’t tolerate bullying,'” she said. “And I’m like, ‘I told you that he communicates feelings through numbers. If he called a kid zero that means the kid is making him feel zero, like making him feel sad.’

“I’m like, ‘how could you not [know]; I gave you a heads up on this. This is him trying to communicate in the best way he knows how and he got in trouble for trying to communicate to you.'”

Another incident in the 2019-2020 school year was with 3-year-old Kennedy. Her mother, Taylor Daniels, was also unaware of any kind of complaint or investigation into her daughter’s previous teacher.

Kennedy has a rare genetic disorder called congenital disorder of glycosylation.

“She is very developmentally delayed, intellectually delayed and she’s obviously 6 years old; she’s not walking or talking, but she’s spunky and she understands all of what we say pretty much, so she’s perfect,” Daniels said with a smile as Kennedy watched television on the couch.

Daniels recalled being contacted by the school twice in the year Kennedy was in Carpenter’s class.

First, she was told that Kennedy had a bump and bruise on her head following an incident during a period when kids hold onto a rope and walk together.

Kennedy sitting in her special chair. Photo courtesy: Daniels.

“I guess they said they were short-staffed, and they were trying to get everybody together or something…it was a weird story to begin with, but they tied the end of the rope to her stroller, and supposedly the kids went before they were supposed to and her stroller got pulled over,” Daniels said.

The second incident involved something Daniels called “mommy intuition.”

“I had a feeling [about] the school one day…I had a feeling one day that something just wasn’t right in the class,” she said.

She explained that Kennedy’s diapers had been fuller than usual when she picked her up from school, and at first she attributed it to Kennedy growing and eating more. But then she put it to the test.

“So, they have cubbies at the class and you send diapers and wipes and stuff like that,” Daniels said. “And so I intentionally put her in an overnight diaper that we use at the house. And she came home in that same diaper. So, that was an incident where we had to go and have a sit-down and stuff like that with the school.”

Daniels has moved Kennedy to homeschool and Connelly said she is seriously considering moving her son to homeschooling as well due to the fear of this happening again.

The parents with kids listed on the police report filed in April said they’ve been briefly interviewed by the lead investigator from KPD over the phone and they’ve had no communication from DCS regarding the investigation.

DCS officials released this statement:

“If we interview a child we talk to the child’s parent to let them know we talked to their child and to see if they have any additional information that is helpful to our investigation.  As far as a notice to all the parents—we would coordinate that with our Law Enforcement partners. Sometimes we take the lead on it and sometimes they do and we’ve had situations where we do it together. It depends on the situation and the circumstances of the investigation.”

DCS Spokesperson Sandra Brandon

All attempts to contact Carpenter have gone unanswered.