The 50-year-old former teacher suspected of disappearing with a teenage student on Monday — setting off a multi-state AMBER Alert that is ongoing — allegedly “groomed” her at school, an attorney for the girl’s family tells PEOPLE.
Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas was reported missing by her family Monday afternoon. Authorities believe she is with Tad Cummins, a former health teacher at her high school in Culleoka, Tennessee.
A warrant has been issued for Cummins’ arrest for alleged sexual contact with a minor, according to the Tennessee Bureau for Investigation. The charge stems from an earlier alleged sexual interaction, on school property, between him and Thomas.
Since the teen vanished, an AMBER Alert has been issued in both Tennessee and Alabama.
It remains unclear at this time if Thomas was taken against her will when she went missing. But her family’s lawyer, Jason Whatley, says whether she went willingly or not, she is still a victim.
“This is a 15-year-old girl — and if they are together, she has been groomed by a 50-year-old authority figure, so how could we even define ‘willingly’?” Whatley tells PEOPLE.
The Maury County Public School District, where Cummins taught and Thomas attended school, released a statement on Tuesday addressing the alleged sexual interaction
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“Maury County Public Schools suspended the Culleoka Unit School teacher involved in the law enforcement investigation once we were notified of the allegations,” the district said in its statement, according to WKRN.
“Since then, the teacher has been dismissed as a result of the investigation,” the district said. “The district does not tolerate any manner of behavior that is alleged in this incident and will take swift action to remove parties from school campuses who are involved with investigations of this type.”
However, Whatley claims the school district did actually not suspend Cummins when the alleged interaction occurred and instead allowed him to continue teaching at Culleoka — where Thomas was allegedly “groomed.”
According to Whatley, a student reported to school administration on Jan. 24 that he saw Cummins kissing Thomas in his classroom the day before. One week later, law enforcement informed the teen’s family of the allegations.
“My client was as mad as a wet hen when he learned he was kept in the dark,” Whatley says. But Cummins was not penalized for the alleged kiss and continued teaching at the school, he claims.
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On Feb. 6, two weeks after the alleged kiss, Whatley says he sent a letter to the school district on behalf of the family, expressing their concerns.
It was only later that same day, after the letter, that Cummins was suspended, Whatley says.
“[Maury County Public Schools] already dropped the ball when they failed to tell my client anything for a week, and then didn’t get rid of this guy while they investigated,” Whatley says. “Even if they believe [Cummins] was falsely accused, you get the teacher [and student] out of the situation.”
According to Whatley, the school district’s decision to allow Cummins to continue teaching was the “talk of the school.”
“I had to get on the school board about talking to their teachers about talking about it in school, in front of pupils, even in front of Mary Catherine herself,” Whatley says.
Teen’s Family Is ‘Very Scared for Her:’ Source
Thomas was last seen Monday morning after being dropped off at a local restaurant by a friend, according to the TBI. She was reported missing by her family later that afternoon.
On Monday about 3 p.m., she and Cummins was seen in Decatur, Alabama, according to investigators. Authorities previously alleged Cummins was armed and dangerous.
Speaking with PEOPLE on Wednesday, a family source says, “I’m very scared for [Thomas],” adding, “It’ so hard to understand what would bring someone to do these kinds of things.”
“I don’t understand how this is real life,” the source says.
Thomas was last seen wearing a flannel shirt and black leggings. She is 5 feet 5 inches inches tall and weighs 120 lbs., with blonde hair and hazel eyes.
Cummins was seen driving a Silver Nissan Rogue with a Tennessee license plate 976ZPT, according to the TBI. He is 6 feet tall and weighs 200 lbs., with brown hair and eyes.
Anyone with information on Cummins or Thomas should call the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.