Tennessee Issues Amber Alert for 15-yo Student on the Run with 50-yo Teacher

Amber Alert for Elizabeth Thomas

Amber Alert for Elizabeth Thomas

[Update — 2017-04-02] On March 31, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released screen grabs from a surveillance video recorded at a Walmart in Oklahoma City on March 15, 2017. (Oklahoma City is approximately a 10-hour drive west of Culleoka, TN.)

The images show student Elizabeth Thomas, 15, entering the store on East I-240 Service Road in Oklahoma City with former teacher Tad Cummings, 50, and walking beside him while they shopped. The video purportedly shows Cummings using cash to purchase food. Both Cummings (brown) and Thomas (red) appear to have colored their hair following their flight from Culleoka. The spotting of the pair has led to speculation that they may be headed further west.

Meanwhile, in perhaps the least surprising headline of the week, an attorney for Jill Cummins issued a statement announcing that she has filed for divorce from her husband Tad, citing “irreconcilable differences” and “inappropriate marital conduct.”

[Original Post] The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) has issued an Amber Alert for 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas, a freshman at the Culleoka Unit School in the Maury County School District in Tennessee. She is the company of 50-year-old Tad Cummings, who until two weeks ago was a health teacher at the Culleoka School. The report was issued at around 6pm on March 14, 2017.

The saga began on the morning of Monday, March 13, when a friend dropped Thomas off at a Shoney’s restaurant in Columbia, Tennessee. She was reported missing by her parents later that same day. In mid-afternoon, the TBI said, investigators could place Thomas in Decatur, Alabama, a little over an hour south of Columbia. According to a spokesperson for the Decatur police department, there was no physical sighting of Thomas; instead, the location may have been derived from a ping from her cell phone.

Although the TBI has received over one thousand tips of possible sightings ranging from Tennessee to southern Texas, none of the leads so far have panned out. Each Amber Alert update from the TBI contains the following descriptions:

Thomas is a 15-year-old white female, with hazel eyes, stands 5’0” and weighs 120 pounds. She was last seen wearing a flannel shirt and black leggings. Cummins is a white male, who stands 6’0”, weighs approximately 200 pounds, and has brown hair and eyes. He is believe[d] to be armed with two handguns and driving a silver Nissan Rogue with Tennessee tag 976-ZPT. A warrant has been issued for Cummins for Sexual Contact with a Minor and Aggravated Kidnapping. On Friday, the TBI added him to the state’s ‘Top 10 Most Wanted’ list. There is a $1,000 reward for information leading to his capture.

Red Flags

As is so often the case, the investigation into Thomas’s disappearance has exposed numerous red flags that were either ignored altogether or not effectively addressed. There are numerous reports, for instance, that in late January a student saw Cummins kiss Thomas in his classroom. The student first confronted Cummins directly and then reported the incident to school administrators. In interviews with school officials, both Cummins and Thomas denied any physical contact and talked about their close friendship in and out of school, including at church. Despite the lack of confirmation of inappropriate contact, Thomas was removed from Cummins’s health class and he was reprimanded.

The warning from the district to Cummings regarding his “duty to uphold his professional responsibility and behavior” was clearly not sufficient. When Thomas was seen in his classroom on February 3, the district suspended Cummins three days later for violating the district’s order.

In a letter to the district dated that same day, an attorney for Thomas’s family alleged that they did not learn about the alleged kiss until more than a week after it occurred, when the father was interviewed by sheriff’s deputies. The attorney also said that there was evidence that Cummins had violated the district’s orders by communicating with Thomas via cell phone.

In the last 48 hours, investigators have learned that Thomas and Cummings wrote love letters to each other by composing emails and saving them as draft messages. As Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper explained, “They would write the message and let it save as a draft. The other person would log in, read the message and then delete it and then write another message that was saved as a draft.” (Some readers may remember that this is the same technique that General David Petraeus to communicate with his mistress, Paula Broadwell. See, e.g., Frederick Lane, “Cybertraps,” Boston College Law School Magazine, Fall/Winter 2012, pp. 21-22.)

The forensics exam by investigators also uncovered Internet searches by Cummins on the subjects of “teen marriage” and how easily law enforcement can identify and track distinguishing features of his Nissan vehicle.

Reflections and Discussion Points

Speed Is of the Essence: One of the themes that runs through my work is the impact of digital technology on our judgment and decision-making. Smartphones, the Internet, and social media (especially instant messaging) have dramatically increased the speed of modern life. One by-product of those innovations is that we make decisions and take actions far more quickly these days and spend less time reflecting on the possible problems that might arise. As a result, it is far too easy to people to tumble down the slippery slope of unintended consequences.

There is one other aspect of digital technology that occurs far too often in the educator/student cases that I study: the acceleration of relationships. Modern communication methods foster an implied sense of intimacy between two individuals; with the press of a button, a message flies at the speed of light directly from one person to another, wherever they may be. In addition, the implied intimacy is often heightened by the context of the messaging. For instance, if a student and teacher message each other late at night, the odds are good that the messages are flowing from one bedroom to the other. Even if neither party explicitly comments on where they are, the location(s) are an unavoidable backdrop to the conversation.

Adding to the acceleration of digital relationships, ironically, is the absence of face-to-face interaction. This “intimate distance,” as I would describe it, encourages increasingly deep levels of emotional engagement; parties to these types of conversations are quite often willing to say things and share feelings that they would be uncomfortable sharing in person. At the very least, it would take far longer for an in-person relationship to reach a similar level of commitment and the odds are much higher that it would be discovered before anything untoward occurred.

For both school districts and administrators, the speed of digital communication heightens the obligation to respond more quickly and more effectively to potential misconduct by educators towards students. In this case, for instance, it is fair to ask if things would have turned out differently if the draft emails between Cummins and Thomas had been uncovered more quickly. Five weeks elapsed between the date of Cummins’s suspension and his flight with Thomas; that is ample time for a computer forensics examiner to look through any devices Cummins used at the school.

Let me underscore one point: a school district that suspects misconduct should make certain that any examination of digital equipment is conducted by a qualified computer forensics expert. That is particularly true if the misconduct might be criminal or could result in litigation. Even accidental damage to evidence raises the potential for charges of obstruction of justice or spoliation of evidence.

I am also acutely sensitive to issues of due process and personal privacy. However, any educator should be on notice that they have little or no privacy rights to material stored on district equipment. If a district has credible suspicion that inappropriate conduct has occurred between an educator and student, then the district has more than sufficient justification to minutely examine any district computer equipment used by the educator. As this case illustrates, the sooner that happens the better.

Better Communication with Parents: As I noted earlier, the attorney for Thomas’s father has alleged that more than a week passed before he learned about the report that Cummins kissed Thomas in a classroom. While it appears that the district promptly conducted an investigation (during which both Cummins and Thomas denied that anything happened), I think it erred by not involving one or both of Thomas’s parents sooner. To be fair to the district, Thomas’s family situation is complicated; nonetheless, her parents should have been informed before a sheriff’s deputy showed up at the front door.

It is not possible to know exactly why the school administrators or the district held off on alerting Thomas’s parents and it is not reasonable to impute any specific motive without more evidence. However, it is fair to note that Thomas had only been a student at the Culleoka Unit School for less than a year (she was homeschooled before that), so it is unlikely that she had forged particularly strong relationships among either her classmates or the staff. Cummins himself had only been at the school since 2011 but according to a career retrospective published by The Tennesseean, he was a highly regarded applicant with nearly twenty years experience as a respiratory therapist. He was hired on the strength of glowing work references and high marks during his interview.

Was the school district reluctant to notify Thomas’s parents because the report of the late-January kiss was inconclusive and it wanted to avoid publicly harming Cummins’s reputation? Were administrators reluctant to involve themselves in the clearly difficult Thomas family dynamic? Or was their motivation nothing more than a desire to avoid the possibility of bad publicity for the school and the district?

As a parent and as a former school member, I know that not every claim made by a student is accurate. These types of situations do need to be investigated carefully, particularly given the potential impact on an educator’s career. It serves no good purpose, however, to omit parents or guardians from the investigation.

Proactive Attention to Vulnerable Students: One of the more troubling aspects of this particular case is that Thomas may have been the victim of domestic child abuse. Her mother, Kimberly Thomas, was arrested last year on charges of abusing Elizabeth Thomas and three of her sisters. Among other things, Elizabeth Thomas told police that her mother had thrown her down the cellar stairs of their house and locked her in. Kimberly Thomas denies the charges and is still awaiting trial.

In an interview with local news station WHNT, Kimberly Thomas said that she actually saw Cummins and her daughter together over Christmas break. However, because she is under court order not to have any contact with her children, she could not say anything at the time.

I am assuming that the school district and Culleoka School officials were aware of Thomas’s painful upbringing and the legal charges against her mother. If they weren’t, then that is a broader failure of the youth support systems in the area. It is difficult to believe, however, that they hadn’t been informed.

One of the ongoing themes in educator abuse cases is the psychological vulnerability of the victims. Not every vulnerable student is victimized, of course, but the stereotype of educators preying on emotionally susceptible children is well-grounded in both statistical and anecdotal evidence.

Thomas fits the textbook profile of a vulnerable and susceptible teen. After years of homeschooling, she plunged into the chaotic social environment of a public high school. Her mother was arrested and charged with child abuse; at the very least, her family life was deeply unsettled. Even before any intimation of an inappropriate relationship with a teacher, the school should have been making a more focused effort to provide her with support and counseling.

Again, as a former school board member, I am well-versed in budgetary challenges. I know firsthand that we ask a lot and sometimes too much of our schools. However, schools and school officials have an affirmative duty to protect children from harm. These types of cases make it clear that we can do a better job of identifying students who are at a heightened risk of abuse.

This is not something easily fixed at the district level; our shift in priorities has to occur at the county, state, and federal level. Wholly apart from the psychological and possible physical harm suffered by Thomas, there is a simple economic consideration. By the time this situation is resolved, it is a safe bet that the TBI will have spent more than the cost of providing at least one and possibly more counselors. We have the money in our society to do a better job protecting our children; we just need to choose to do so.

Sometimes Bad Things Happen: The district, no doubt, will defend itself by saying that it made support services available to Thomas. In its report on the alleged kiss between Cummins and Thomas in January, for instance, the school did say that Thomas should be “instructed to bring anxiety issues to the school administration and guidance counselors.” But the language used by the school suggests an approach that under the circumstances was both too passive and too late.

To be fair, as any counselor will correctly point out, you can lead a person to therapy but you can’t make them think. It may be that the school tried to provide services to Thomas and she chose not to take advantage of them. It is tempting to think that every instance of abuse can be prevented if one or both parties received the right intervention before the abuse occurred. But that is not the case.

Similarly, from a forensics perspective, there is the temptation to believe that with more and better access to digital information, school officials or Thomas’s parents would have been able to intervene and prevent her abduction. As I said, I do think that the school district should have been more aggressive in reviewing the contents of Cummins’s school computer. And certainly, as early as February, at least one of Thomas’s parents knew that she and Cummins were communicating via cell phone.

But even with perfect informational awareness, it is still not possible to prevent some bad outcomes. In this case, for instance, if one or more adults was aware of the communications between Cummins and Thomas, what recourse would they have had? Depending on the contents of the conversation, perhaps a solicitation charge against Cummins; at the very least, public embarrassment and heightened awareness on the part of his wife, local law enforcement, family friends, etc. But arguably, nothing short of involuntary home confinement (which ironically may have contributed to this situation in the first place) would have prevented Thomas from choosing to flee at the first opportunity.

I raise this point because it is an often-overlooked facet of our debate over national security. Ever-more aggressive encroachments on our personal privacy are justified on the grounds of safety despite the fact that perfect security is neither achievable nor necessarily desirable. As the old saying goes, “bad facts make bad law.” We need to be careful to avoid damaging our institutions and our values in our zeal to protect ourselves and our children.

All of that being said, the risk of “bad law” or bad policies emerging from a case such as this is low. Based on the available facts, much more could have been done to support Thomas and deter Cummins without risking damage to either his constitutional rights or her personal autonomy.

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