By the book: Oklahoma school district acted quickly, kept public informed in assault similar to Ooltewah rape

By the book: Oklahoma school district acted quickly, kept public informed in assault similar to Ooltewah rape

Oklahoma school system faced sexual assault crisis

February 7th, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Former Hamilton County School Superintendent Rick Smith, third from right, waits with school board members for their meeting to start on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Seated from left are Rhonda Thurman, Karitsa Mosley, David Testerman, George Ricks, Sr., Smith, Dr. Jonathan Welch and Donna Horn.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

A few weeks after an Ooltewah High School freshman was allegedly raped by his basketball teammates during a trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., on Dec. 22, a school district just south of Oklahoma City was struck by a hauntingly similar situation.

In Oklahoma, officials with Norman Public Schools learned of the alleged rape of two students by their wrestling teammates and took swift action, handling the crisis much differently than Hamilton County schools did.

According to police reports, junior varsity wrestlers from Norman North High School raped two teammates on a school bus while returning from a tournament about an hour away in Pauls County on Jan 9.

Three boys ages 18, 17 and 16, are charged with three counts of rape by instrumentation, and another 17-year-old is charged with one count, according to court records obtained by The Associated Press.

The victims in the case are ages 16 and 12, according to police reports.

The Oklahoman reported the 16-year-old victim was restrained in the back of the bus under the seats and sexually assaulted by three of the boys, according to police. The 12-year-old was assaulted on the bus and again by all four boys when they arrived at the high school, according to the Oklahoman.

District officials from Norman Public Schools, a district about half the size of Hamilton County, asked not to be individually identified, but told the Times Free Press they learned of the assault on Jan. 12. They immediately began working with police and started an internal investigation.

Within hours, district officials suspended the students involved, dismissed one coach and suspended a second pending an investigation. The second coach resigned before any final disciplinary action was taken, district officials said.

"It is our practice to immediately suspend personnel who may be implicated in an incident pending an investigation," district officials said in an email to the Times Free Press."In this particular case, we had enough information available to immediately suspend students while also meeting our obligations to allow for the due process all students deserve."

By Jan. 14 the school system and Superintendent Joseph Siano were publicly answering questions about what had happened and the schools' response, though the ongoing investigations and student privacy laws limited what they could say, district officials said.

They said the school board and employees were never advised by the school board's attorney or the district attorney not to speak about the incident.

"We have been as transparent as possible within the boundaries of the law," they said in the email.

Norman Public Schools spokeswoman Alesha Leemaster said the community's ire over the attacks seems to be directed at the accused students rather than the school system.

Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman wishes school officials here had handled the Ooltewah assault in a similar way.

"In the very beginning, if they had sent the whole team home and made a public statement about the incident and said that more information will be forthcoming, we wouldn't be where we are now," Thurman said.

The way Superintendent Rick Smith and other administrators handled the Ooltewah assault has drawn much criticism.

Authorities in Sevier County were the ones to alert local media that a 17-year-old and two 16-year-olds had been charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault. The report stated that the 15-year-old was rushed into emergency surgery to repair his ruptured colon and bladder, and authorities were alerted about the incident by hospital staff.

It took Smith 20 days to make a public statement about the case and for the public to see action was being taken, for which Smith later apologized.

Thurman has maintained the Ooltewah basketball team's season should have been canceled immediately and the coaches and athletic director who were in Sevier County when the assault took place suspended.

"We didn't show the students we were going to protect them at all costs," Thurman said. "What kind of message were we sending the kids?"

Thurman said the board was alerted about an "incident" on Dec. 24, but it wasn't until Dec. 30 that Smith provided board members with any additional information, forcing them to learn facts from the media instead of the superintendent.

"All I wanted [Smith] to do was be upfront. Be honest. And tell the truth," Thurman said. "If you don't know something say that. At least you're making a statement."

Smith declined to comment for this story.

The school board met on Jan. 7 for less than four minutes, and Chairman Jonathan Welch said he was advised by school board attorney Scott Bennett and the Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston not to discuss the case.

Bennett told reporters he understood a Sevier County judge ordered no one to discuss the case, and he advised the school board accordingly. The next day the Times Free Press reported that no gag order had been issued, according to court officials in Sevier County.

As media reports surfaced that three other boys also were assaulted during the trip, leaders of Hamilton County schools remained silent.

Ooltewah head basketball coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery, assistant coach Karl Williams and Athletic Director Allard "Jesse" Nayadley were suspended without pay Jan. 14, when Pinkston charged them with failing to report abuse or suspected sexual abuse, as required by law.

A preliminary hearing before Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw is set for Feb. 15. Ooltewah Principal Jim Jarvis, Hamilton County Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade, Secondary Operations Director Steve Holmes and Smith have been subpoenaed to testify.

The school board is expected to meet after the hearing to discuss buying out Smith's contract, as he requested, or firing him for cause due to his handling of the case.

The school board has met once to discuss its policy on regarding bullying, hazing and discrimination, but has taken no action to change the policy, which does not comply with state law.

In Norman, district officials said they already have strengthened student activity travel procedures. That includes increased supervision on all student trips; ensuring supervisors are seated in areas where they can see students at all times; expanded training and more video surveillance equipment on district buses.

Officials said the school district also is implementing sexual assault prevention education. The system's two student advocacy coordinators, who help student trauma victims, also are offering continued support to the victims and their families.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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