Signal Mountain Middle-High School Principal Tom McCullough backtracked Tuesday, saying he regretted using the term "cover-up" when discussing the recent underage drinking incident that involved some of the school's football players, including the state championship team's quarterback.
"I wish I had chosen my words more carefully," McCullough told a school assembly Tuesday. "Do I really believe it was a cover-up? I have a copy of the [incident] report, and it doesn't mention anything about Signal Mountain High School.
"I owe apologies to our [school resource officer], to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department and to Coach [Bill] Price. ... Coach Price, I do trust your judgment."
In addition to four juveniles, quarterback Robert Hogan Whitmire, 18, and recent Signal Mountain graduate Robert Lucas Locke, 19, were cited as adults for underage drinking.
Whitmire is scheduled to appear in Hamilton County General Sessions Court on Jan. 3, while Locke is set to appear Jan. 5.
The incident occurred Nov. 26 when a Hamilton County sheriff's deputy responded to a noise complaint at 6332 Forest Park Drive.
When the deputy arrived, he found a bonfire burning and several juveniles at the scene of what appeared to be a large party with open containers of alcohol, said sheriff's office spokeswoman Janice Atkinson.
McCullough, who said he learned Monday about the six former or current Signal Mountain students who were involved in the incident, apologized Tuesday during a previously scheduled assembly to welcome back to school David Anderson, a sophomore who's been recovering from a spinal cord injury since August.
At the assembly, McCullough also spoke briefly about Zach Taylor, a Signal Mountain student who died this summer after an alcohol-induced car wreck.
"As teachers, we talk about teachable moments. ... We need to talk about the choices we make in life," McCullough said.
Whether they realize it or not, student athletes are held to a higher standard of behavior, McCullough said, adding that football coach Bill Price had disciplined the players involved but refusing to say what their punishment was. Team rules prohibit players from drinking alcohol but don't specify the penalty.
"There are consequences, and we will move on," the principal said.
Although Price kicked a player off the team several weeks ago and also benched another player for half of the Class 2A championship game that Signal Mountain won Saturday, all the football players involved in the Nov. 26 incident played in the championship game against Trinity Christian Academy.
Price later spoke at Tuesday's assembly and told the high-schoolers he only knew about one student who was involved -- one of his players, whom he declined to name, who called the coach after the incident to tell him what happened.
The student told the coach he had not been drinking, but still was cited.
"The young man did call and tell me ... that he made a mistake," said Price, who told a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter on Monday that he had no knowledge of the incident. "The other kids involved, we didn't communicate until after Dr. McCullough and I talked. And I handled it the same way."
Staff writer Jeremy Belk contributed to this story.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...