ELKO — A teacher at Wells Elementary School was arrested Monday afternoon on charges of engaging in sexual activity with high school students at Wells Combined School.
Tennille Whitaker, 40, has been charged with eight counts of sexual conduct with a pupil. According to Elko County Undersheriff Ron Supp, there are two alleged victims between the ages of 16 and 18 who were high school students at the time the contact occurred.
Whitaker has been working with the school district full time for 11 years. She was released from jail Tuesday afternoon on $160,000 bail.
Elko County School District Superintendent Jeff Zander said keeping students safe is the district’s highest priority.
“The teacher has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending full investigation and we’re fully cooperating with the sheriff’s office to facilitate the investigation,” he said. “The Elko County School District takes this very seriously and we have policies in place to prohibit this type of conduct. As I stated earlier, the safety of our students is the highest priority.”
The school district plans to keep Whitaker on paid administrate leave to prevent her from trying to return to work before the investigation is complete.
The alleged incidents occurred over a two-year span, with some incidents occurring on school grounds. The Elko County Sheriff’s Department began investigating the allegations in October of last year after receiving a tip from a concerned parent who noticed Whitaker was behind closed classroom doors with a student and thought it was inappropriate.
The school district began conducting its own investigation in February, speaking to teachers and faculty at Wells Combined School. Students who were interviewed for the investigation claimed they were unaware of any sexual activity between Whitaker and students.
Even though she had not yet been charged, the school district issued a written warning to Whitaker that reinforced the district’s policy regarding professional boundaries between staff and students.
Both the sheriff’s and the school district’s investigations met with resistance.
“Nobody was really willing to testify or give a statement that said ‘yes, this happened,’” Zander said.
Supp said the investigation is ongoing and wanted to encourage anyone with more information to reach out.
“At this point in the investigation we have two students that have been involved but we think there are possibly more,” he said. “The investigation is still ongoing so we would ask anybody that has any further information on any possible victims or anybody that has any information to contact our detective division at our sheriff’s office.”
Because it was difficult to get witnesses to come forward the sheriff’s department had to gather a lot of information on its own.
According the school district, there was no information shared between the sheriffs department and the district.
Supp said the investigation was somewhat unconventional.
“We did some unconventional investigation. We did a lot of surveillance and some things like that and we were able to gather a lot of information that led us to circle around and we finally got down to the arrest yesterday.”
In light of the arrest, the school district may reexamine its social media policy. It is unclear if Whitaker made contact with students on social media and there are already rules in place prohibiting contact between students and teachers on social media, but Zander said it may be time to update the guidelines.
“A lot of these particular issues that we’re dealing with have to do with social networking and relationship-building from a social networking side of things,” he said. “We have a policy in place to try to expressly prohibit those conversations taking place that create personal relationships ... we will probably bring this policy back to the board of trustees to expand that policy somewhat.”
While the school district works to create more stringent guidelines regulating student-teacher interaction, the sheriff’s department is still looking to get people to come forward regarding any inappropriate interaction Whitaker may have had with students.
Supp said even small pieces of information can help turn a case.
“If there are any other witnesses or any other victims or anything out there, regardless of how small or how big it is, we’d ask them to call us,” he said.