published Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Despite red flags, Hamilton County high school teacher kept his job

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Complaints from parents. Repeated reprimands. Meetings with HR. Written and oral warnings.

Despite all of that, records show, a Hamilton County high school teacher remained employed for years after administrators began questioning the appropriateness of his relationships with students, especially with young male students.

Jason Hamrick, who taught at Ooltewah High for nearly 15 years, was at the center of numerous complaints and administrative inquiries for much of that time. School and state records state that Hamrick:

• Made students perform manual labor at his home.

• Spent the night in a hotel room with students on a school trip.

• Had some students spend multiple nights at his home.

• Was accused of talking to an individual about masturbation and inappropriate touching.

Hamrick, who could not be reached for comment late last week, was employed at Ooltewah High School from 1999 until he resigned Feb. 27. District officials say they were only recently made aware of many of the claims, as issues in his school-level file were not sent to the central office personnel file.

Some school board members are questioning how he could have remained employed for so many years.

"I don't understand how it could have got this far, to tell you the truth," said board member Donna Horn, a retired teacher.

Horn said there were plenty of red flags in Hamrick's file throughout the years.

"If the allegations are true, then the man does not need to be working in the school system or with children," she said.

Hamrick's personnel file, a publicly available document, along with a state report, include at least 10 instances of complaints, warnings and formal reprimands. Officials here say it's rare for a teacher to have a single warning in his or her file, so years' worth of them are almost unheard of.

With so much national discussion around teacher quality, experts say cases like this could point to larger issues. Many states, including Tennessee, have worked to reform educational mainstays such as teacher tenure and collective bargaining rights -- long assailed by critics as impediments to ridding public schools of poor teachers.

"If we don't get teachers fired for this kind of egregious behavior, then it's almost inconceivable to think they're getting fired for being bad at what they're supposed to be doing," said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research and a professor at the University of Washington Bothell.

•••

Issues with Hamrick started appearing in 2001, two-and-a-half years after he began at Ooltewah. In that year, Hamrick was accused of requiring some students to purchase basketball season tickets or complete manual labor at his home in exchange for better grades.

He received a written reprimand in that year from an assistant superintendent. In a meeting over the grades issue, Hamrick apologized to administrators, who told him his actions could be interpreted as extortion.

"However, you need to consider the impact of your actions had a parent or the community heard about your behavior and the damage it could have caused the school and your personal career," Principal Ed Foster wrote in his file.

In 2002, Foster recommended him for tenure, which the school board approved.

The next year, parents complained about Hamrick's coaching style and asked that he be removed as basketball coach. He was accused of using vulgar language and making inappropriate comments about a party: "I'll bring the beer, you bring the women." A report that Hamilton County filed with the state also says that Hamrick made a student-athlete get out of a car and run a mile on a busy highway.

In May 2003, Foster removed him from all coaching duties. In the same month, Hamrick was reprimanded after sleeping in a hotel room with three male students while chaperoning a school trip. In interviews with administrators, all three said nothing inappropriate happened. On another occasion, a student on the trip could not be found and was discovered in Hamrick's room lying on the bed with Hamrick present.

"I can't defend my actions during the trip," Hamrick told administrators.

In October 2007, Ooltewah High received an email saying, "You have a child molster (sic) on your staff," which prompted a police report with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. An individual alleged that he had previously slept overnight at the teacher's home when Hamrick was a youth minister and that Hamrick "spoke to him about masturbating and touched his penis," according to the state report.

The individual did not want to press charges, and the officer investigating recommended the case be "held as pending" and sent to the criminal investigation division. Sheriff's officials said records of child sexual abuse are not open to the public and would not release a copy of the report.

Later that month, Foster told Hamrick not to supervise students alone and not to talk to students in the hallway or common area except for routine greetings.

"For whatever reason, you simply do not recognize when you have crossed the line between your desire to be a compassionate teacher and the perception that you are cultivating an unhealthy relationship with young boys," the principal wrote in his file.

But problems continued. And in 2008, Foster reprimanded Hamrick again, this time for pulling young male students from class to discuss personal issues.

In a three-page letter, the principal said students were uncomfortable with Hamrick's personal questions and described him as "creepy." At a meeting with multiple school officials, Hamrick acknowledged that he had discussed these issues "too many times," his file says.

His file contains no other disciplinary issues between fall 2009 and the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. During that time, Principal Mark Bean led Ooltewah High. Bean retired in September 2013 while under suspension for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

But in recent months, the central office began an inquiry into Hamrick. Officials declined to say what prompted the review.

On Feb. 26, one upperclassman said he had spent the night at Hamrick's house "around 20 times" during his ninth-grade year. Another verified that he had completed manual labor at his home. Hamrick was interviewed by an HR director the next day and hand-penned a letter of resignation on a piece of legal pad paper.

•••

Stacy Stewart, Hamilton County's assistant superintendent for human resources, said the central office did not receive many of the allegations in Hamrick's file until this year. Oftentimes, schools will keep individual files on teachers, she said, but usually severe items like reprimands are included in the central office file.

"Once we were made aware, we handled it, in my opinion, exactly appropriately," she said.

Stewart said teachers will often resign or retire when facing suspension or termination. A Red Bank High teacher said she was forced to resign last month after leaving school to take a student to the doctor, but that came after several years' worth of discipline issues.

Stewart said she can't remember the last time a teacher was taken to the school board for formal termination proceedings. But that doesn't mean the district hasn't gotten rid of problem teachers, she said.

As for termination, "It's not hard to get any teacher fired if you keep the proper documentation and you follow up with your supervisors," said Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, the local teachers union.

The union was not involved with Hamrick's decision to retire, Hughes said. But before assuming her union duties, she did teach in the classroom next to Hamrick's. She said he was a good teacher, both of Bible and English courses, but it appears he had multiple lapses of judgment when it comes to boundaries.

"I assure you the association does not want to keep people who do not have that professional wisdom," she said. "You have to be able to keep that wall between you and the children. It's a wall of professionalism. You can show children you're fond of them. You can love them. But you have to keep that wall between you and the children."

Two mothers reached last week said Hamrick was a good teacher and a mentor to their children during his time at Ooltewah.

Still, cases like Hamrick's can reignite the oft-heard refrain that it's just too difficult to get rid of bad teachers.

"I don't really know what it takes for a teacher to be fired if that action doesn't warrant it," said board member Rhonda Thurman. "It just infuriates me that we can have someone that does all this and still stays in the classroom."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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