Sohn: Ooltewah's perverted culture of 'horseplay'

The exterior of Ooltewah High School photographed on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Staff photo by Maura Friedman)
The exterior of Ooltewah High School photographed on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Staff photo by Maura Friedman)

We have a few questions for every parent in Hamilton County - or anywhere, for that matter.

If someone shoves a pool cue into your private parts while two other people hold you down, is it horseplay or is it violent rape?

And if someone does this to your child - while two schoolmates hold him or her down - is it horseplay or is it violent rape?

If this happens on a school trip with coaches and chaperones in the same building, after your child already has asked one of those adults for help and protection, can you honestly ever have any interest in trusting this school or school system with any part of your child's life ever again?

The likely answers to these questions seem damning enough. But in Hamilton County, school documents and police reports obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press in the aftermath of a 15-year-old Ooltewah basketball player's Dec. 22 alleged rape with a pool cue at the hands of three teammates on a school tournament trip to Gatlinburg shows such "horseplay" has been the culture rather than the exception.

This "horseplay" - as it was described Monday in a Hamilton County courtroom by Gatlinburg Police Detective Rodney Burns - sent a 15-year-old Ooltewah freshman to surgery for the repair of his colon and bladder. Three other teens on the trip later acknowledged that they also were assaulted during the trip. Further, the perpetrator - a senior - told the investigator that he had received a similar pool cue treatment when he was a freshman.

It seems clear that in all likelihood, without a need for surgery this time, the "culture" would, again, have been silently condoned by team members and school staff. Instead, the senior in this instance and the two teammates who held the freshman down face Sevier County charges of aggravated rape and aggravated assault. The chaperones - Ooltewah athletic officials Jesse Nayadley, Andre "Tank" Montgomery and Karl Williams - face Hamilton County charges of failure to report child abuse.

Rightly, this tragedy of looking the other way, minimizing violence, ignoring bullying and failure to lead has turned Hamilton County education on its end. The Board of Education is correctly talking about firing or at least buying out the contract of Superintendent Rick Smith.

It is about time. Actually it's long past time, as Sunday's excellent Times Free Press investigative story by Kendi Anderson makes clear. The story, headlined "A Code of Silence," notes that while the Ooltewah rapes in December grabbed recent national headlines and disgust, they also brought back memories that some here tried for years to forget.

One with those haunting memories is Michael Mercer, who told Anderson that he is among several former Ooltewah students who, years before, sought help from Hamilton County law enforcement and courts to remove - and bring attention to - a former Ooltewah coach who assaulted students and treated them inappropriately.

Mercer noted that he had complained to some of the same Ooltewah and Hamilton officials who, in recent weeks (and even in the courtroom Monday), claimed the school "has never had issues of hazing or bullying."

Certainly there are plenty of contradictions and murky perceptions in cases like this. There were even contradictions in the Monday testimony of Gatlinburg's Detective Burns, who said the assault was not rape, but instead "something stupid kids do." His logic was that there was no sexual gratification and therefore no sexual assault.

On Tuesday, Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher on his personal Facebook page posted his own observation about such outrageous logic.

"Not simply hazing, or bullying, or teasing, or horseplay. Rape. A violent crime," Fletcher wrote, citing Tennessee law that defines rape as the sexual penetration of a victim by a defendant using force or coercion without the defendant's consent.

"The allegations and charges clearly constitute rape. For anyone, including a police officer, to suggest otherwise minimizes the severity of this incident, the experience of the victim and, ultimately, makes life more dangerous for current and future victims," Fletcher wrote.

Like Fletcher, parents and good educators - and we have thousands - know the difference between fun and bullying. They know the difference between horseplay and assault, between hazing and rape.

Good educators need to be loudly tired of being stained by bad educators. And local parents, residents and employers need to plainly revolt against our business-as-usual acceptance of a second-class school system with ingrown leaders making sick "hazing" excuses and blaming socioeconomic circumstances for academic failures.

Tell members of the Hamilton County Board of Education to fire Rick Smith, along with the coaching staff and other Ooltewah school administrators who overlooked, and therefore condoned, a criminally perverted culture of "horseplay."

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