School board eyes external audit of school culture in wake of Ooltewah rape case

School board eyes external audit of school culture in wake of Ooltewah rape case

February 12th, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Hamilton County School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch reads a prepared statement during a public session concerning the Ooltewah High School basketball rape case Wednesday night in front of an overflow crowd. Welch immediately adjourned the meeting with no other comments or discussion allowed. School board member Donna Horn, left, sits alongside.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Ooltewah High School sign

Ooltewah High School sign

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Scott Bennett

Scott Bennett

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Hamilon County School Board member David Testerman rises to his feet as he makes an impassioned statement after School Superintendent Rick Smith asked for a buyout of his contract on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Among those listening are board members Rhonda Thurman, left, and George Ricks, Sr.

Hamilon County School Board member David Testerman rises...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

School board members Rhonda Thurman, left, and Karitsa Mosley listen as the Hamilton County Board of Education meets to rework their 2016 budget request Monday, June 1, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

School board members Rhonda Thurman, left, and Karitsa...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

In the wake of the alleged rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman, the Hamilton County school board discussed having an external review of individual schools' culture and ensuring board policies are being implemented across the district.

During Thursday night's board of education meeting, Chairman Jonathan Welch asked the board to consider commissioning a districtwide audit of schools.

"I think in an effort to be proactive instead of reactive about what comes forward in the coming months it would be wise to open this audit," Welch said.

He also told the board the school district is required by law to conduct an internal investigation of the Ooltewah incident within 60 days of the Dec. 22 attack, regardless of a criminal investigation. Records from Sevier County Juvenile Court state that two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old are charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault of a 15-year-old during a basketball trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., in December.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools have a responsibility to respond promptly and effectively to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual violence with an investigation.

"A criminal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment or sexual violence does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints promptly and equitably," the Department of Education's website states.

The school board's attorney, Scott Bennett, advised the board not to limit an audit just to Title IX compliance, which is an education law protecting against discrimination based on gender. He said narrowing an audit to issues regarding Title IX could limit the board from asking other important questions about the culture existing in schools.

Bennett reminded the board its policies can be good, but to work they need to be applied properly at the school level.

School board member David Testerman said he thinks the board also wants reassurance that the district's policies are in good shape and in compliance with the law, and also being made appropriately available for school employees and students.

School board member Karitsa Mosley said she believes an audit needs to happen, and continue to be conducted annually.

"I do think it's needed, and I think we need to reach out to our resources and see what is available," Mosley said, mentioning there may be many in the community qualified to help.

She said other schools and districts have faced similar problems and she hopes Hamilton County can learn from them in how to conduct a districtwide evaluation.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," Mosley said.

Bennett said he would try to develop a list of suggestions from other school districts that have conducted similar audits and provide it to the board before next week's meeting.

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

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