Cooper: Ooltewah must address its culture

Ooltewah High School Principal Jim Jarvis testifies in a hearing for coaches and administrators charged with failing to report child abuse or suspected child abuse.
Ooltewah High School Principal Jim Jarvis testifies in a hearing for coaches and administrators charged with failing to report child abuse or suspected child abuse.

One thought stands above all others in the conjecture about who knew what, when they knew it and what they did about it in the case involving the alleged pool cue rape of an Ooltewah High School basketball player in a Gatlinburg cabin on Dec. 22.

If hazing of players was an annual occurrence, as individuals in and around the team have alleged, coaches and athletics administrators must have known, on some level, that it went on. And if they knew, why didn't they do everything in their power to make sure it never happened again?

The three adults charged in the case, Ooltewah head basketball Coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery, assistant Coach Karl Williams and Athletics Director Jesse Nayadley, are innocent until proven guilty.

On Monday, the charges against them - failing to report child abuse or suspected child abuse - were deemed serious enough to send from Hamilton County Juvenile Court to the Hamilton County Grand Jury.

So, the three men will have their say. Undoubtedly, they'll have to report whether they were trained on the steps they are to take if they suspect child abuse. And who told them and when. They'll need to describe when and what they impart to their players about hazing and what players are to do if they see other players involved in it. They'll also need to explain their chain of command. Do they report the abuse first or do they alert authorities first?

It's clear from testimony in the Juvenile Court hearing there is a lack of understanding about what is horseplay, what is hazing and what is rape. What once may have been called horseplay involving "initiation" to a sports team - "beat-ins" is the term used by Ooltewah team members - is now called hazing. And hazing is against the law, but rape - unlawful sexual penetration - is beyond hazing.

Gatlinburg Detective Rodney Burns, in his testimony, seemed not to understand - even after talking to everyone concerned to make his report - that since there was no sexual gratification there was no rape. The case, he said, was "something stupid kids do" and had been blown out of proportion.

What the detective should have known is that state law says rape can happen if only one of three circumstances involving sexual penetration occur. The circumstances are if force or coercion is used to accomplish the act, if penetration is accomplished without the consent of the victim, or if penetration occurs through sexual intercourse into any part of a person's body or if penetration occurs by any object into the genital or anal openings of the victim.

In this case, according to reports, all three circumstances were present. In other words, it was clearly rape.

Subsequent testimony from suspects, victims and coaches may indicate they may not have known the difference between rape and something else, either. And coaches, depending on what they were told initially, may not have known anything involving penetration occurred.

What seems less believable - or incredibly naive - is the testimony by Ooltewah Principal Jim Jarvis that the school "has never had issues of hazing or bullying to my knowledge."

Just the day before, the Times Free Press published "The Code of Silence," an investigative report about numerous allegations of sexual misconduct at Ooltewah Middle School and Ooltewah High School over the last 25 years. Certainly, sexual misconduct is a form of bullying. Indeed, according to Tennessee law, the term "harassment (including sexual harassment), intimidation or bullying" means an act that substantially interferes with a student's educational benefits, opportunities or performance.

Jarvis, who has been at the school since 2000, further testified that hazing and bullying are mentioned in the school's student handbook, which he said is accessible online. That's fine for students and coaches who find the handbook leisure reading, but the law also instructs school districts to provide teachers and counselors at the beginning of each year - each year - copies of the bullying and harassment policy, training regarding the policies and procedures of the policy, and information for students and parents relative to bullying prevention programs.

The hearing also revealed that the team's basketball trip to Gatlinburg was never approved by Superintendent Rick Smith or the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Of course, Monday's events were just one stop on what is likely to be a nightmarish road for students, teachers and administrators at Ooltewah before this case is resolved. But several things are already clear. Training and education on policies and procedures about bullying and harassment have been lax. A look-the-other-way culture has been tolerated.

So, before the legal issue involving the rape moves to its conclusion, these other matters must be addressed so an incident of this magnitude never happens again.

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