Editor’s note: This story contains graphic sexual content.
Ten days after the state revoked the license of a teacher accused of inappropriate conduct with four girls from Heritage High School, he began working for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services as a case manager.
DCS fired him this month, less than two weeks after The Daily Times filed a public records request about his employment.
Kent A. Leatherwood, now 37, resigned from his position as social studies teacher and assistant baseball coach at HHS on Sept. 14, 2017, following an investigation in which one current and three former students said he texted them inappropriate messages, kissed one in a classroom and sent nude pictures to two of them over social media.
The Tennessee State Board of Education voted Jan. 26 to revoke his license, and Leatherwood began work Feb. 5 as a DCS “Case Manager 1,” according to public records obtained from both agencies by The Daily Times. The job specifications for a Case Manager 1 include determining whether abuse or neglect has occurred, conducting home visits and transporting children to appointments.
When contacted by The Daily Times last week, Leatherwood repeatedly replied “no comment” to questions, including his response to the former students’ allegations and whether his job as a case manager involved working with teenage girls.
DCS terminated Leatherwood’s probationary employment June 5, and a special investigations unit is reviewing his cases, said Rob Johnson, DCS communications director.
The agency does not automatically check the licensing status of potential employees who are not being hired as educators and was unaware of Leatherwood’s status when it hired him, Johnson told The Daily Times last week. If the department had known, it would not have employed Leatherwood, he said.
‘Horrific lapse of judgment’
Blount County Schools suspended Leatherwood without pay last Aug. 28, pending an investigation into allegations of “unprofessional conduct.”
The documents don’t indicate what sparked the investigation; however, they do include a report from a current student that she saw text messages and social media communications between Leatherwood and a fellow student.
Leatherwood admitted initiating contact with an HHS student on Twitter with the phrase “miss me?” and sending a text message to her that included the phrase “cause I like to look at you,’” according to memos that David Murrell, BCS assistant director of operations, sent to BCS Director Rob Britt. The girl who received the messages said she believed the teacher was flirting with her in class during the past school year, and she felt uncomfortable based on comments he made then and in August 2017 outside of class.
Leatherwood called his actions with that student “a horrific lapse of judgment” in a written response following an Aug. 30, 2017, meeting that included Britt and Murrell, a memo shows.
At the same time, the married teacher denied a former student’s allegations that during the 2014-15 school year he sent text or Instagram messages that included naked photographs, asked for pictures of her and invited her to his home and to his classroom during his planning period, where the girl said they kissed one time.
School administrators interviewed two more former students following the Aug. 30 meeting, and their allegations are included in a Sept. 14 memo from Murrell to Britt.
According to that memo, one former student said Leatherwood flirted with her during her junior and senior years and sent her messages over Instagram. That girl said she stopped corresponding with Leatherwood after he sent her an unwanted photo of his penis, but she was not sure whether that occurred before or after graduation.
The other former student said she believed Leatherwood sent messages to her on Instagram following graduation, and according to Murrell’s memo, the messages she provided with dates indicate they were sent after the girl was 18 and had graduated. Other messages the girl provided were undated.
However, one indicates that Leatherwood sent the message during a date and time when he would have been on duty as a teacher in April 2016, Murrell’s memo states.
That former student said Leatherwood asked for pictures of her and sent her a picture of himself shirtless. That photo is included in the public records obtained by The Daily Times. The photo of Leatherwood includes the message, “Have I gained weight?”’
Other messages include phrases such as:
• “So I’ve gotta know…thongs?”
• “I’d rather have you another way on my desk” ... “Bent over it”
• “Wish I was behind you Actually...wanna ride?”
• “Is love to lift that skirt up above your hips,” and then he corrected himself to say “I’d”
• “That’s sexy. Can I taste first?”
• “I wanna bend you over and taste you”
In another set of messages included in the documents, a girl says “you are hurting your family,” and his response is “Point taken.” Then a message says, “If you like the attention younger girls give you or girls in general, leave your wife.”
Murrell’s Sept. 14 memo noted Leatherwood would meet that day with Britt and him to discuss the findings and additional allegations, and the teacher would have an opportunity to respond verbally and in writing.
Leatherwood, who had worked for BCS since July 2003, resigned that day instead.
The state board notified Leatherwood on Nov. 9 that it intended to revoke his license and that he had a right to a hearing, but he did not request one, according to the state Board of Education order revoking his license.
References and reports
DCS records provided in response to a request from The Daily Times show Leatherwood listed among his employment references Robbie Bennett, an assistant principal and athletic director at Heritage High School.
Bennett said in a phone interview last week that he was not involved in the investigation of Leatherwood. “I just knew there was an investigation, and there was nothing criminal,” he said.
Telephone reference check notes from DCS indicate a human resources technician called Bennett on Jan. 18. Those notes indicate Bennett said he knew Leatherwood for 12 years, rated his performance as above average, and said he would rehire Leatherwood. One question on the form notes the job candidate will be working with children and asks, “How do you feel (blank) will do in this position?” The notation on that line says, “Great.”
However, Bennett said during the phone interview that he was answering questions based only on Leatherwood serving as a baseball coach for more than a decade. When the caller asked questions about hiring Leatherwood, the assistant principal said he told DCS it would have to contact Principal Jake Jones or Blount County Schools Central Office.
DCS documents show other references contacted included a friend who is a DCS employee and the store manager of a home improvement store where Leatherwood worked. Notations on both reference checks describe Leatherwood as “family oriented.”
Other references Leatherwood listed that DCS apparently did not contact are a pastor and another HHS teacher and coach.
A final report BCS submitted to the state Office of Teacher Licensing on Sept. 14 includes places to note the status of any investigations by DCS and law enforcement agencies. Both are marked “unknown.”
Tennessee state law says “soliciting sexual exploitation of a minor,” someone younger than 18, can be a Class E felony. School officials also have a duty to report to a judge, to DCS or to law enforcement circumstances that reasonably indicate child abuse, neglect or sexual abuse occurred.
Murrell refused last week to answer specifically whether Blount County Schools had notified DCS or a law enforcement agency of the allegations against Leatherwood. “We followed protocol in what we’re supposed to report,” he would only say.
According to the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, the only reference to Leatherwood in its records management system is as a witness to a student at HHS being out of control in 2008.