Ooltewah investigation: Schools failed to address reports of abuse

Ooltewah investigation: Schools failed to address reports of abuse

September 23rd, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Ooltewah High School Alumni Association members are hoping to find funding to provide more class space for STEM and vocational classes, such as welding.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Document: DA report

Read the report of the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office joint investigation with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office into allegations of ongoing assaults, hazing and bullying among members of Ooltewah High School's varsity boys basketball team.

Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston speaks to the press in this file photo.

Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston speaks...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

More Ooltewah rape case stories

The rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman exposed fundamental flaws in how Hamilton County school leaders handle charges of abuse, bullying, hazing and other threatening behavior, according to a 23-page report released Thursday by Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston.

The school district failed to adequately train employees, supervise students and handle the situation, the report states. These mistakes were likely the result of systemic problems within the district, as school officials failed to take action on previous reports of abuse at numerous schools across the county before a freshman was raped with a pool cue during a basketball team trip, the report states.

The investigation, conducted jointly by Pinkston's office and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, found that neither Ooltewah High nor central office administrators acknowledged the seriousness of the attacks.

"Even after the basic outline of events became public, school administration seemed clueless," the report states. "When a mother of one of the victimized freshmen went to Ooltewah High School to withdraw him from the school, office personnel wanted to know why she was moving her child to another school."

The report calls on the Hamilton County Board of Education to "better understand and strengthen its responsibility to hold the system, in particular the superintendent, accountable for results," and calls the district's current accountability system "a failure."

Prior to the release of the report, a private investigation into Ooltewah High and a federal lawsuit filed against the board and former school employees also stated a culture of abuse existed at the school prior to the rape, and school employees were alerted and failed to take appropriate action to protect students.

School board chairman Steve Highlander, who represents Ooltewah, said Pinkston's report states a lot of things the board has already heard, but with a different "emphasis and tone." He said the board or school district has addressed several of the concerns in the report, naming changes to policy, increased training for employees and the development of a crisis management plan.

"We hate that the incident happened, and I hope and pray, like all board members, that this never happens again," Highlander said.

More than 100 people voiced concerns to investigators, almost all citing specific instances of being ignored by school district employees at all levels, according to the report. Pinkston office said the release of the report was delayed by the "continual stream of complaints" regarding the school system.

This investigation found reports of incidents leading to injuries and humiliation at numerous schools across the county, and reports detail a lack of response by administrators in most of the cases. Reports include:

- A Hixson High School coach making inappropriate comments to female players;

- A teacher at East Ridge High School being accused of statutory rape and remaining in the classroom;

- A teacher's jaw being broken by a student at Hixson Middle School;

- An Orchard Knob Middle School teacher being drugged by students.

And at Ooltewah High, hazing, bullying and threatening behavior are part of the school's culture, according to the report.

"The pervasive predatory attitude among athletes at Ooltewah High School still exists," the report states.

The report also criticizes school officials for not being open with the public after the rape.

"We are disturbed by the degree to which the school system has withheld information from its own Board and from parents and taxpayers," the report states. "[The Hamilton County Department of Education] has a duty to keep the public informed of every aspect of its operations, particularly whenever safety of students or personnel is jeopardized or violated."

Pinkston has not charged anyone resulting from this investigation, stating that in many cases the statute of limitations is expired or witnesses are unwilling to press charges. In February, Pinkston charged three adults with failure to report child sexual abuse in connection with the rape, and only the team's head coach, Andre "Tank" Montgomery, still faces charges.

The report details how four Ooltewah High School freshman were raped with pool-cues by older teammates during the basketball team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., just days before Christmas to compete in a basketball tournament. The trip was not approved by the school board and a transportation plan was never submitted for the trip, as required by policy, the report states.

Three former Ooltewah High School students were convicted in connection with the rape of the player, who was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery following the attack, and are scheduled to be sentenced next month in Sevier County Juvenile Court.

Following the rape, Pinkston's report states, Montgomery's wife cleaned up the crime scene and threw away evidence. Montgomery also told the team "to keep quiet about the incident, to not even discuss what happened with their parents," the report states.

If the one boy had not received such severe injuries, the report assumes news of the attack would never have been made public. Even after news spread, former Superintendent Rick Smith and members of his staff failed to "acknowledge the seriousness of the attacks," the report states.

Pinkston strongly criticizes Smith in the report for his lack of response following the rape because he did not make an effort to assure the community steps were being taken to help prevent such an incident from happening again. He also says Smith did not contact parents of the victims or players on the trip, or have open communication with the hospitalized freshman.

"These are among the most basic responsibilities of a leader during a time of crisis and it is unacceptable that the man at the helm of Tennessee's fourth largest public school system failed in these fundamental duties," the report states.

Smith is not named as a defendant in the federal lawsuit filed against the school board and former Ooltewah High School Principal Jim Jarvis, the basketball team's volunteer assistant coach Karl Williams and Montgomery.

Smith, who resigned from his position in March, did not return a request for comment Thursday evening.

Though all three former Ooltewah employees are no longer at the school, the report says significant efforts have not been taken to educate athletes on the harmfulness of hazing or change the culture that allowed this behavior to take place at Ooltewah.

Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly, who was chosen by the board to replace Smith, released a statement Thursday stating significant changes have been made in the past six months. He said protecting the district's 43,000 students is his top priority.

Kelly said there are now stricter policies in place, stronger training for employees and a more comprehensive approach to crisis management and communications.

"However, the report may provide us an additional opportunity to enhance our practices, provide better support and safety for all students moving forward," he said in the statement.

Pinkston's report concludes by providing recommendations to the board and district leaders.

Recommendations include:

- Strengthening policies and penalties by establishing higher expectations for coaches, teachers, administrators and students concerning hazing, bullying, supervision, and establishing heftier penalties for failing to follow these policies.

- Increasing worthwhile training on the state's law stating that all adults are mandatory reporters of abuse.

- Better addressing bullying and providing support for students across the system to report abuse, and for adults to know how to recognize and handle these types of issues.

- Boosting the district's accountability system by developing a some sort of internal affairs department to help review potentially inappropriate activities within the system and report them to the superintendent and board without fear of retribution.

- The school board providing more aggressive oversight, and holding the superintendent

- Partnering with the Children's Advocacy Center, taking advantage of their violence prevention resources.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.