Greeson: Mistakes after Ooltewah nightmare magnify previous hazing indifference

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 2/15/16. Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools Rick Smith is sworn in as a witness before Judge Robert Philyaw during a preliminary hearing for the Ooltewah High School basketball coaches and the school's athletic director in Hamilton County Juvenile Court on February 15, 2016. Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston charged head coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery, assistant coach Karl Williams and Athletic Director Allard "Jesse" Nayadley with failing to report child abuse or suspected child sexual abuse in connection with the rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman by his basketball teammates Dec. 22, 2015.

There were tears and gasps.

Mostly, there was silence after the ruling.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw deliberated for almost an hour before returning to the bench with his decision.

He looked around a courtroom packed with seven television cameras, close to a dozen reporters, four Hamilton County Board of Education members and a state senator.

Philyaw, who made great efforts to give each side leeway in this preliminary hearing, spoke for 10 minutes before revealing his decision that the burden of proof against Ooltewah High School coaches Andre Montgomery and Karl Williams and athletic director Jesse Nayadley was met. The three will face a grand jury, which will decide whether to indict them for failing to notify proper authorities in the hours after a basketball player was allegedly sexually assaulted by three teammates late last year at a tournament outside of Gatlinburg, Tenn.

While this ruling may have been expected, it was far from a slam dunk. There was talk about state law, about training within the Hamilton County school system about procedures, about who knew what and when.

While the merits of the complaint were debated, the limits of credibility were pushed.

Chief among them was Ooltewah Principal Jim Jarvis. Jarvis did himself few favors with testimony filled with vague answers that too often included words like "unaware" and "I suspect." He stumbled around details about the first call he received and what exactly he was told after the events that happened late the night of Dec. 22. Something this monstrous seems like it would have been unforgettable.

That's when, in his direct testimony, Sevier County Detective Rodney Burns said all of team members he interviewed said they had been beaten and hazed at some point in their careers. Burns said the athletes told him they didn't tell the coaches.

Yes, the headlines have been about the horrific tragedy that sent one teenager to the hospital with nightmarish injuries. But the truth is if the torture this kid endured had stopped an inch shorter, we likely never would have known and Ooltewah basketball would be getting ready for a game tonight.

That the defendants didn't know there was a culture of hazing and the depths of torture - remember these are three men involved in the program on a day-to-day basis - stretches belief. If they did know and didn't stop it, that stretches the belief about with what they should be charged.

Monday, though, was not about belief. It was about proof and legal interpretation.

So what's next?

Well, the system could be trying to find a new direction in leadership. The outrage from this has jump-started a vocal call from all corners of the county for more and for better from our public schools.

That attention prompted Superintendent Rick Smith, who testified Monday that the Owls' trip to the tournament was not approved by the district because of a paperwork error, to ask for his contract to be bought out by the school board. The cover-their-tracks testimony from Hamilton County school system officials such as Smith, Lee McDade and Steve Holmes screamed of the uncertain future in the halls of the central office. The changes could be on a large scale, both at the school and system level.

None of Monday's legal actions change that. Nor should they.

Those changes were needed. It's tragic it took this to get us here, but here we are.

Monday also was about the law - and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire said the legislature would examine that law to make sure it is effective in protecting kids - and whether three adults directly involved in the Ooltewah case can be charged criminally for their roles in this.

Philyaw's lengthy deliberations and the hours of back-and-forth questioning and cross examining point to the difficulties ahead.

In some ways you can argue that their mistakes after the incident pale in comparison to the ignorance before it.

Contact Jay Greeson at His "Right to the Point" column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays on A2.

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