Officials are staying quiet about Ooltewah basketball player rape case

Officials are staying quiet about Ooltewah basketball player rape case

Group of high school alumni want independent investigation

January 5th, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Ooltewah High School is photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, near Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Someone from the outside needs to look at this. We can't investigate ourselves.
Rhonda Thurman, Hamilton County school board

Pressure is mounting for Hamilton County school officials to publicly show action is underway to handle the assault of a 15-year-old student.

Thirteen days have passed since an Ooltewah High School freshman was hospitalized. Three of his basketball teammates were arrested and later charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the basketball team was playing in a tournament.

School and district officials have not spoken publicly about the details of the investigation, which they say is ongoing. Meanwhile a group of more than 120 Ooltewah High School alumni are asking for an outside auditor or detective to investigate the alleged rape and help the district prevent such violence in the future.

Document: Letter to Hamilton County School Board and Ooltewah

Letter to Hamilton County School Board and Ooltewah

Document: Ooltewah coach attorney's statement

Statement released by attorney Curtis L. Bowe III on behalf of Ooltewah High School basketball coach Coach Andre Montgomery.

The Hamilton County District Attorney's office also opened an investigation into the case Monday to see if misconduct involving the team was taking place before the incident in Gatlinburg. The office has not received any complaints of criminal behavior regarding the basketball team, but opened its investigation with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office based on media reports, according to a news release.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith did not return several requests for comment, and previously told the Times Free Press he planned to meet with Ooltewah school officials Monday. Ooltewah High School Principal Jim Jarvis also did not respond to a request for comment.

Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade said an investigation into the assault is ongoing, and Ooltewah will handle the discipline in this case. He said if an appeal is made, it will be handled by his office. He said no timeframe is in place for when the disciplinary process will begin.

Smith previously said he does not anticipate the three boys will return to Ooltewah this semester, saying they probably face a long-term suspension.

On Wednesday, school board members are scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. in executive session, which is closed to the media and public. During this meeting, they will discuss the case with the school board attorney, but they cannot take formal action. After the closed session, a special-called meeting is scheduled in which the board can act and publicly discuss the situation.

"Our board has no investigative authority. As such, we are dependent on the superintendent and staff to handle all student and employee incidents and determine the most appropriate course of action," said Jonathan Welch, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education. "This incident has been tragic, for lack of a better word."

"The board has to make sure the public knows we ensure students' safety," Welch added. "And we as a board must find a way to restore public trust and confidence."

School board member Steve Highlander, who represents Ooltewah's district, said he understands why the community is asking for evidence that this situation is being handled. However, he said, action cannot be taken until all the facts are known

"I wish it was already taken care of, and we knew definitely what the problems were and what the outcomes will be," Highlander said. "But, if we jump to a conclusion, and we jump to a wrong conclusion and we are wrong, we have hurt someone's name and opened ourselves up to a horrible lawsuit."

Highlander said he hopes the board has more answers before its meeting Wednesday. He said he has still not received an update from authorities in Gatlinburg with specifics on the assault.

"No one on the board wants to sweep this under the rug," Highlander said. "I am hoping and praying that all our employees are exonerated."

Highlander said having an external party look into the case is an option the school board may consider.

Rhonda Thurman, a fellow school board member, thinks an external investigation is needed.

"Someone from the outside needs to look at this," Thurman said. "We can't investigate ourselves."

She hopes the board is given more information Wednesday about what happened during the team's trip and if policies and procedures set by the board were followed.

"I'm just so heartbroken over this," she said. "This has taken place in my hometown and under my watch on the school board."

Thurman said she thinks Ooltewah's season should end immediately, because allowing the team to continue playing sends the wrong message to other teams. Thurman is not holding the team responsible for the action of three players, but is holding the team responsible for allowing this assault to happen, she said.

"The message we've sent now is you can do anything you want and get away with it," Thurman said. "We had a young man almost die at the hands of his teammates and that seems pretty serious to me. It makes you think, what does a team have to do to get their season cancelled?"

Thurman said she has not spoken against Ooltewah's coach Andre Montgomery, but has publicly noted he was one of the chaperones on the trip responsible for the team's well being and safety.

Montgomery's attorney, Curtis L. Bowe III, emailed a statement to the Times Free Press Sunday night, saying the actions of three members of the team should not diminish Montgomery's reputation. The statement also said school board members should refrain from public criticism of a school employee, citing Hamilton County Department of Education policy.

"To speculate, assume, or spin personal views designed to further political careers, or initiate an effort to have an employee dismissed through the start of a witch hunt, is improper and defamatory at best; and as a result, it is imperative that we all recognize that the issue affecting our community is not hazing or bullying," Bowe wrote in the statement.

Thurman said the statement feels like an intimidation effort.

She has been the most vocal school board member about the need for swift action following the assault, but said she has never slandered the coach.

Teachers returning to Ooltewah High School on Monday described the day as fairly normal. They said the assault was publicly addressed briefly during a staff meeting in the morning and no details were given.

"It was kind of the elephant in the room," said one teacher. "It was talked about a little, but really we were told not to let situations like this define us or what we do."

The teacher said they felt a sense of pride returning to the school and were relieved that the assault was not talked about much, saying it is important for the authorities to do their work and provide details when appropriate.

Students return to the classroom on Wednesday.

Parents said Ooltewah's boys basketball team practiced Monday and the team is scheduled to play Cleveland at home on Friday night.

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

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