Three Howard School employees suspended after they allegedly failed to report child abuse

The Howard School is located in the 2500 block of Market Street in Chattanooga.
photo Dexter Bell

photo Jenny Smith

Just 15 months after the Ooltewah High School pool-cue rape scandal, three teachers have been suspended from The Howard School for allegedly failing to report child abuse.

The Ooltewah High School rape case grabbed national headlines and led to a Times Free Press investigation that found that a culture of abuse existed at the school and adults overlooked warning signs. The school system said it increased training for teachers and staff on the state's mandatory child abuse reporting law.

The three employees who have been suspended are band director Dexter Bell, ninth-grade counselor Jenny Smith and teacher Amelia James.

A spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Department of Education, Amy Katcher, provided a news release confirming Bell's suspension after an inquiry early Saturday afternoon, which said: "HCDE takes allegations of failure to report child abuse very seriously."

Katcher confirmed the other two suspensions after being pressed for additional information later in the afternoon. It is not clear when the suspensions were handed down. Bell did not respond to a request for comment Saturday and Smith and James could not be reached.

Neither of the statements gave any details on when or where the possible abuse could have taken place, but Katcher wrote that an investigation is pending and law enforcement had been notified along with the Department of Children's Services.

Tiffanie Robinson, the school board member who represents The Howard School's district, applauded the decision by Principal Chris Earl to suspend the employees involved.

"I absolutely believe that Principal Earl did the right thing in suspending his employees that failed to report an abuse case," she said. "As soon as Principal Earl found out, he reported the problem immediately."

Earl could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Robinson also was heartened by the response from Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly and his staff, and highlighted their efforts to respond quickly and effectively.

"Dr. Kelly and the central office team have been johnny-on-the-spot taking care of the problem," she said. "From the moment they were notified, they've been involved and notified the school board and taken immediate action on it."

She said the community is so tightly woven together that if the employees withheld information, they likely were concerned with the child's well-being.

"I feel very confident that the reason why these teachers did this is because they were absolutely concerned about the student's home life and what type of situation it would put them in," she said. "It was not a malicious action on the faculty's part."

Bell previously served an unpaid seven-day suspension in May 2015 for insubordination after he refused to meet with then-Howard principal Zac Brown, according to Times Free Press archives.

Following that suspension, then-Superintendent Rick Smith directed Bell to adhere to the state's code of ethics and told him that any further misconduct could cost him his job, according to a letter in Bell's personnel file. In 2008 and 2009, other principals raised concerns about his classroom management and planning skills, according to newspaper archives.

Smith himself resigned as superintendent in March 2016 after a wave of criticism over his handling of the Ooltewah rape case and a lack of communication with the school board.

Cherilyn Bryant, a volunteer assistant to Bell in the Howard band, defended Bell. She said she has only ever seen him support and care for his students, and that he would never withhold information about a student who was being abused.

"That is so not Bell," she said. "His students and other students talk to him all the time about things going on at home or help that they may need because they trust him, they know he's going to help them when they need help.

"He's been a father figure to so many students who have had fathers absent in their lives, to try to guide them in the direction they need to go. That's just who he is," she said.

Staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.