Chief of Tennessee’s student mental health initiative demoted for verbally abusing employees

Katie Houghtlin has been removed as assistant commissioner of whole child after a state investigation found her conduct was “abusive” to some employees at the Tennessee Department of Education. She is now handling special projects for Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

The leader of Tennessee’s new “whole child” initiative that includes anti-bullying programs has been demoted and reassigned after an investigation found she verbally abused employees under her supervision at the Department of Education.

Katie Houghtlin has been stripped of her title as assistant commissioner, as well as her responsibilities managing personnel. She is now handling special projects for Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, who recruited her from Texas where they previously worked together.

According to a summary of an investigation obtained by Chalkbeat, a state investigator found that Houghtlin “utilized verbal abuse, micromanagement, as well as harsh and inappropriate treatment” toward a staff member who later filed a complaint, as well as toward other employees.

The summary said Houghtlin’s behavior amounted to “abusive conduct.”

What is surprising about the findings is that Houghtlin’s behaviors were similar to abuse from which she was seeking to protect students.

Schwinn hired Houghtlin to build and manage a major initiative aimed at making students feel healthy, safe, engaged, and supported. The initiative included mental and physical health and citizenship and civics education as Gov. Bill Lee proposed an unprecedented $250 million trust fund to support the social and emotional needs of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students.

But in early March, the state Department of Human Resources opened an investigation into a complaint from one of Houghtlin’s employees who has since resigned. The investigator reported the findings to Schwinn on April 28 “for review and appropriate handling.”

“This department takes employee concerns seriously and all employee complaints should be heard, respected, and handled appropriately,” Schwinn said in a statement Tuesday when asked about the findings. “Every employee’s experience matters.”

Chelsea Crawford, the education department’s communications chief, said Houghtlin’s annual salary was cut from $140,004 to $135,000 and that she is now managing development of Tennessee’s COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force and related online resources. She will be given “other projects as assigned,” Crawford said.

Houghtlin previously was director of elementary, middle, and state programs for the Texas Education Agency, where Schwinn was chief deputy commissioner of academics before being tapped to lead Tennessee’s education department beginning in February of 2019.

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Like Schwinn, Houghtlin started her education career with Teach for America. She also worked for KIPP charter school network in Austin before joining the education department in Texas in 2018. 

Her Tennessee job was expected to be high profile and with broad responsibilities after Schwinn made “whole child” education one of the department’s three strategic priorities for the next five years. Based on a statewide “listening tour” in 2019, Schwinn identified support for students’ mental health needs as the top concern that she heard from educators.

“We have to think differently. It is that urgent,” the commissioner said in November of students grappling with chronic family trauma like poverty, addiction, and abuse. 

The proposed $250 million trust fund was the first big undertaking as the governor announced in February that he wanted to to support and grow mental health services for students in Tennessee’s highest-risk schools. But six weeks later, Lee cut the fund from his proposed budget when the coronavirus suddenly brought the economy to a halt.

The initiative is still viewed as critical, however, as schools prepare to reopen amid a public health crisis. Many returning students likely have experienced stress and trauma due to disruptions to their daily routine, parents who have lost jobs, and illness and death from the coronavirus.

Houghtlin’s responsibilities have been divided among existing staff, and her 42-member team was informed Monday of the changes. 

Crawford said whole child has moved to Jean Luna, assistant commissioner of college, career, and technical education; physical health is now under Brian Stockton, assistant commissioner of district operations; and special populations is being managed by Eve Carney, chief districts and schools officer.

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