ELKO – A former elementary school teacher was sentenced to the maximum penalty for having sexual contact with four high school students on Thursday in Elko District Court.
Tennille Whitaker, 41, was sentenced by Judge Nancy Porter to serve two to five years for each count of sexual conduct between a school employee or volunteer and a pupil, a category C felony. The consecutive terms are a maximum aggregate of 20 years in prison with a minimum of eight years.
Whitaker was also sentenced to lifetime supervision and must register as a sex offender. She was incarcerated immediately after the sentencing hearing by Elko County Sheriff’s deputies.
Porter said that Whitaker was solely responsible for her actions which harmed the victims, their families and her own family.
“I am sorry for your family, your parents. You are their only child. But you did this to these people, to your family and to the victims, nobody else,” Porter said. “You have hurt other people’s children, not just your own. You are not the victim here. These four boys are the victims here, and their families.”
In arguing for probation for his client, Byron Bergeron said that her psychosexual evaluation stated she was low-risk to reoffend, that his client had been in counseling for the past 14 months, and that she was remorseful about her actions.
“It is an extensive overkill to put her one day in prison,” Bergeron said. “This is not a sexual assault.”
Elko County Deputy District Attorney Chad Thompson said because of the plea agreement, the state could only ask for 12 to 36 months on each count, but would ask for no probation, adding that “prison is appropriate.”
“We think it is warranted because of the multiplicity of counts and multiplicity of events,” Thompson said, explaining that the sentence would be sending a message of deterrence to the community.
“What kind of a message do we send to the community if she doesn’t go to prison?” Thompson asked. “How do the victims heal when they see Ms. Whitaker out on probation?”
Parents of two of the victims read impact statements to the court, describing how the events changed the lives of their sons, their families and the overall community of Wells.
One parent said after graduation, the four students, including her own son, moved to get away from the embarrassment of the incident.
“They just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “That’s why they’re not here. They just wanted to move on.”
Another parent explained the incident affected those indirectly involved in the case, including people who were friends and neighbors of Whitaker.
“It has negatively impacted our boys and girls, teachers, coaches, school, siblings, neighbors, friendships and families,” she read from her statement, later wondering what the long-term outcomes on those students might be in the future.
“How does this affect a child? It affects them in a variety of ways, which none of them are positive,” she said. “It will manifest in different ways now and through time.”
When offered the opportunity to speak on her behalf by Porter, Whitaker addressed the courtroom, tearfully asking forgiveness from her family and the victims’ families for her actions.
“I’ve spent a year wishing that I could ask for forgiveness and say, ‘I’m sorry’ to these people, because I am truly sorry,” Whitaker said, turning to speak to the courtroom observers.
“I’m not proud of what I did. I am ashamed and I will be ashamed forever,” she continued. “I am truly sorry for betraying the trust of the parents and the victims.”
Before handing down the sentence, Porter said it would not be less for Whitaker than it would be for a male teacher accused of a similar crime.
“The law treats women who commit crimes against boys the same as it treats men who commit crimes against girls, as it should,” Porter said. “The boys-will-be-boys argument does not fly. It is not the law.”
Whitaker was arrested June 6, 2017 following an investigation by Elko County Sheriff’s detectives that started in October 2016 when a parent reported seeing Whitaker behind closed doors with a student. She served two days in jail.
She was initially arrested on eight counts of sexual conduct with a pupil involving two male students between the ages of 16 and 18. Court documents filed with the Elko County District Attorney’s office Aug. 29, 2017 revealed two more students were involved, increasing the charges to 12 counts.
Court documents said the incidents occurred between Sept. 1, 2015 and June 6, 2017 on school property and other locations.
On April 30, Whitaker pleaded no contest in a plea agreement, reducing the charges to four counts of sexual conduct between a school employee and a pupil, a category C felony.
Prior to her arrest, Whitaker had taught at Wells Elementary for 11 years. She resigned from the Elko County School District in August 2017.