April 06, 2018 11:38 AM

Former Tennessee high school teacher Tad Cummins pleaded guilty to kidnapping his then-15-year-old student for 38 days and sexually assaulting her while taking her across the country last year, PEOPLE confirms.

“I cannot be the man I need to be and not tell the truth,” Cummins said moments before breaking down crying in front of a U.S. District judge in Nashville on Thursday, ABC News reports.

Cummins, 51, pleaded guilty to federal charges of transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of engaging in criminal sexual conduct and obstruction of justice, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Tennessee.

Cummins was a teacher at Culleoka Unit School when he kidnapped freshman student Elizabeth Thomas in March 2017. He now faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, the release states.

“This decision today to plead guilty pleases us in the fact that at this point the victim will no longer have to face a lengthy trial and can go about her life,” U.S. Attorney’s Office Spokesman David Boling told ABC News.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

On March 29, Elizabeth’s family attorney announced that Cummins, a father-of-two whose wife filed for divorce in April, planned to plead guilty to the charges. (It was not immediately clear whether Cummins and his wife have divorced.)

“The Thomas family is very relieved that Tad Cummins decided to do the right thing by pleading guilty.  We see this as one more step toward justice for Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas,” Jason Whatley, the Thomas family’s attorney, said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.

Cummins was fired from the school, where he taught health science, after being named the suspect in the case.

Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins

Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins

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Prosecutors say that Cummins and Elizabeth engaged in sexual activity in his classroom multiple times before having sex after they went missing.

Authorities and Elizabeth’s family have said Cummins “groomed” her for months before the abduction.

After 38 days on the run, Cummins and Elizabeth were found living in a four-walled shelter in Northern California.

The thought of having Elizabeth testify in court worried her family from the moment Cummins was arrested, family members told PEOPLE.

“It’s a highly emotional issue,” Elizabeth’s father, Anthony Thomas, told PEOPLE last summer after his daughter’s return.

Elizabeth returned home to Columbia, in Maury County, in July 2017 and is being home-schooled, she told a local paper last September.

“There’s been so much speculation about me,” she told the Columbia Daily Herald in her first public comments after returning home. “There are people saying, ‘She’s not talking for this reason. She’s not talking for that reason.’ It’s not that. It’s just the publicity is affecting people.”

Cummins’ attorney could not immediately be reached on Friday. Elizabeth’s family and attorney declined to comment on the plea.

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