Three school employees have been suspended by the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE) pending the results of an investigation for failing to report child abuse.
HCDE spokeswoman Amy Katcher tells Channel 3, Howard School Band Director Dexter Bell, teacher Amelia James and counselor Jenny Smith were suspended.
"HCDE takes allegations of failure to report child abuse very seriously," Katcher says in a press release.
The press release does not provide details of the incident in question.
Katcher says both police and the Department of Children's Services were notified.
Stacy Stewart, the school board's Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, tells Channel 3 school and central office administration were made aware on March 16, 2017. She said after some preliminary questioning by HR, Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly, exercised his authority to suspend all three employees effective immediately.
Their suspension letters are dated March 17, 2017.
When Dr. Kelly and other school board members were asked to comment, they said they were not able to while the investigation is active.
Stewart sent this statement that reads:
"Neither Dr. Kelly nor the district as a whole is attempting to keep information from the public. We cannot comment, however, on an investigation that is open with law enforcement and DCS. Our commentary could hinder or otherwise compromise the investigations, and we simply do not want to risk that."
Channel 3 asked about the district's protocol for reporting child abuse.
According to Stewart, all employees electronically acknowledge the board policy covering child abuse and neglect each year.
"All school and county administration were re-trained in mandatory reporting laws and given information to take back to their staffs. Employees were also given a wallet-sized card with the protocol for reporting child abuse clearly written on them. Most employees keep them in their wallet or with their employee ID badge," said Stewart. "[Howard] Principal [Chris] Earl, verified that he covered this information in his first staff meeting in August, and distributed the cards to all employees at Howard."
In May of 2015, Channel 3 reported the suspension of Dexter Bell, which led to a protest by dozens of students in support of the band director.
Howard's principal at time could not say why Bell was placed on leave.
Tonya Webb has three kids who graduated and currently attend Howard. Her second youngest son is a sophomore and a member of the school's marching band. She said this is the second time his teacher has been taken away with no clear explanation.
"Nobody knew. Nobody knew why and I guess the thing that I'm really upset about is why Hamilton County, why the administration of Howard didn't call a parent meeting for the band parents and say we need to meet with you and your students and we need to let you know what's going on," said Webb.
The mother of four, said she was shocked to hear about the allegations against the employees, especially Mr. Bell.
"When they go to Howard if that's where they choose that's where you see them blossom that's where you see them open up and say oh there's something I can do instead of being on the streets and being in trouble," said Webb. "Mr. Bell opens that door for them. we don't have teachers like that everywhere.I don't believe in anyway shape or form that it was an intentional I'm just not going to report it type thing."
Webb says believes the recent accusations of Bell prompted the school board to pull their support behind the school's marching band, preventing them from performing at this year's St.Chatty's Day parade.
"They are being punished. It's not just Mr. Bell that's being punished, but they're being punished and it's not fair," said Webb. "At this point these kids have nothing to look forward to for the end of the year. They are basically going to be sitting at school or at home with no performances, no battle of the bands, no going out of town; no anything."
The school district faces the allegations,15 months after the Ooltewah High School pool-cue rape scandal that grabbed national headlines. The school system said it increased training for teachers and staff on the state's mandatory child abuse reporting law.