Ballantyne school loses franchise, state license after teacher fondling allegations

Ballantyne school loses franchise, state license after teacher fondling allegations
(Dedrick Russell | WBTV)
(Dedrick Russell | WBTV)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A Ballantyne school has lost its franchise agreement and was closed down by the state after allegations that a teacher inappropriately fondled children.

Thursday afternoon, the head of the Primrose School Franchising Company sent a statement saying the company was terminating the franchise agreement with the Primrose School of Ballantyne.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the students and their families at this time. These incidents are the kind that no parent should ever face," CEO Jo Kirchner said in a statement. "We take these allegations very seriously."

Earlier Thursday, the state ordered the school to close at the end of the day and suspended the facility's operating license. The school sent parents an email stating it was on a 30-day suspension.

"It was shocking and we love this school," parent Meha Taksale said.

"The action is based in the agency's findings that conditions at the center represent immediate danger to the health, safety, and welfare of children receiving care at the center," the Department of Health and Human Services says.

Nearly 200 parents depend on Primrose now that they are scrambling to find childcare.

"I have no idea. I really don't know," Taksale said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said Monday that detectives obtained information and evidence that 35-year-old Joseph Starnes fondled two children, ages 7 and 8. On Wednesday, police said two more alleged victims, ages 6 and 9, came forward.

Detectives were first notified of the incident involving the 8-year-old last Tuesday, which reportedly happened at Primrose School of Ballantyne.

The agency says the school's owner/administrator, director, and assistant director were told on Monday, March 6 that Starnes inappropriately touched the enrolled child.

"On March 7, 2017, administration allowed Mr. Starnes to return to work and be the sole caregiver for children for a portion of the day," DHHS says. After another assistant director learned the information, she temporarily placed Starnes in a classroom with younger children before he was suspended, DHHS says.

"Administration failed to ensure a safe environment for children by allowing him to have access to the children after being informed of the inappropriate touching," DHHS says.

The school's owner, Mary Schroeder, released a statment on Friday.

As owner and leader of this school, my heart is breaking for those who have been impacted by this situation.  On behalf of our wonderful, loving faculty and staff that made up our school family, we are all saddened. The lives of our parents, children, and employees have been significantly disrupted. But, the relationships and greater good that has been shared in this school will not be forgotten. I have met personally with most of our parents in the last three days and the support from those who know us best has been incredible. We look forward to the opportunity to speak on our behalf and carefully examine the facts of this case within a fair and just setting.  Thank you for the outpouring of support from all facets of our community. Your caring response has sustained us during these difficult times.

Parents came to Primrose Thursday morning bothered and concerned about what was happening at the school.

"We were really taken aback," parent Abhay Kumar said. "We were shocked."

Starnes was charged last Friday with six counts of indecent liberties with a child. After the two additional victims were identified Wednesday, Starnes was charged with four counts of indecent liberties with a student by a teacher and two more counts of indecent liberties with a child.

"This is a very unfortunate incident that has happened. It should not have," parent Lakshmi Kumar said.

The Division of Child Development and Early Education disqualified Starnes from caring for children.

"As a result of the disqualification, Mr. Starnes may not own, operate, be employed, provide transportation, participate in the subsidized childcare program, work in a child care facility, or be present when children are in care," DHHS says.

The agency says that by the school failing to prevent Starnes from returning to work after learning the allegations, "facility management exposed children to significant risk of further harm." The division says they determined Primrose School of Ballantyne is not a safe and healthy environment for children and that "emergency action is required to protect the health, safety and welfare of children."

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Starnes is currently being held by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office under a $180,000 bond. His next court date is March 24.

"We are working diligently to support the school's families to find alternate care solutions for their children," Kirchner said.

Crimes Against Children Detectives are still working to determine whether there are any other victims.

Anyone with additional information is asked to call detectives at 704-336-4466.?

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