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Family of 5-year-old boy with autism says school accused him of 'sexual harassment' after hugging child, kissing another on cheek


'It was disclosed that it will go in his record for the rest of his life that he is a sex offender'

Image source: WTVC-TV video screenshot

Summery Putnam told WTVC-TV she was "sick to my stomach" after the phone call.

Image source: WTVC-TV video screenshot

It came from a teacher at East Ridge Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, about three weeks ago, and it was about Nathan — her 5-year-old kindergartner.

Image source: WTVC-TV video screenshot

"The teacher called me and she said, 'You need to have a talk with Nathan about boundaries,'" Putnam recalled to WTVC, adding that the teacher said Nathan hugged a child and kissed another on the cheek — and that the school filed a report with the state.

Debi Amick, Nathan's grandmother, put it more plainly on a private Facebook post, the station said: "What do you do when a 5 year [old] child is being labeled a sexual predator and accused of sexual harassment by the school system? It was disclosed that it will go in his record for the rest of his life that he is a sex offender."

What's the other huge caveat besides the boy's age?

Both Putnam and Amick told WTVC that Nathan has autism, which makes it more difficult for him to operate within the bounds of acceptable social cues.

"Who do you turn to for help when the school will not even listen to the child's doctor when he explains the child's difficulties in his comprehension of simple things such as boundaries[?]," Amick added in her Facebook post.

Image source: WTVC-TV video screenshot

She also told the station that Nathan "shouldn't be treated like this. The kid doesn't even understand what sex is."

Image source: WTVC-TV video screenshot

Putnam added to the station that Nathan has switched classrooms and teachers and is enrolled in special education services. It isn't clear if he was previously in special ed.

What did the school district have to say?

"School personnel are required to report concerns regarding children to [the Department of Child Services]," Tim Hensley, a spokesperson for the Hamilton County Department of Education, said in a statement to WTVC. "It is up to DCS to determine if those reports are acted on by DCS and what form those actions may take."

The station said it asked the district if the teacher in question filed a report with DCS, and that the spokesperson said the source of the complaints is confidential. WTVC said the state didn't respond to its clarification request.

UPDATE, 9:22 p.m. EST:

In a Wednesday follow-up story, the station said the district disputed the account from Nathan's family members.

Here's the the district's statement to WTVC:

"Hamilton County Schools is committed to the safety and well-being of all students. Our school leaders work to serve our families and meet the needs of our diverse learners. This family's characterization of the incident with their child at East Ridge Elementary does not capture the full context of the concerns expressed to them by the school. It was not a hug or kiss that prompted the school to contact the family. Also, at no time did the school administration punish the child or treat the incident as a discipline issue. Moreover, no one at the school sought to label the child as 'a sexual predator.'

"Hamilton County Schools is bound by student privacy laws that do not allow us to discuss publicly specific details of what happened in the classroom setting with the child. Of course, at the family's direction and with their written approval, the district would be able to provide to interested parties documentation of the issues the school discussed with them.

"The staff at East Ridge Elementary always elects to take action that places the concern for the child as their top priority — which is also required by our district policies and state laws. School leaders are only interested in the well-being of this very young child as he grows and learns with his classmates. The faculty and staff will continue to ensure that this child and every child in our care receives an excellent education in a safe, supportive learning environment."

This story has been updated.

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