Experts say soul-searching needed in wake of Ooltewah athlete rape case

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

We have a huge problem in our society of rape and violence. Ooltewah is hardly unique in this. It's a societal problem that keeps popping up all over the place.

The arrests of three former Ooltewah High School basketball players charged with raping and assaulting a younger teammate with a wooden pool cue has sparked widespread conversation about the role of hazing and masculinity in sports.

Although not much information about what happened has been publicly released because the boys charged with the assault are minors, one consensus has been reached: This must not happen again.

"My heart just breaks for the child," said Hamilton County school board member Steve Highlander, who represents the Ooltewah district.

Highlander said he is talking with school and district administrators about how to thoroughly handle this situation, adding Thursday that the situation "is not completely handled yet."

The three boys charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault of their 15-year-old teammate will not be returning to school when classes resume Wednesday, according to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith. And board members, including Highlander, said they will be sure the district thoroughly investigates what happened during the team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the assault occurred.

The school board is scheduled to meet with its attorney in closed executive session Wednesday.

Two national experts on the topic of masculinity and violence in sports said the school system needs to go beyond investigating the incident. They said a districtwide evaluation of athletic teams and stricter accountability for coaches is needed, along with increased training on how to prevent such incidents.

"Sports and coaches have so much power over young boys," said Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL defensive lineman who heads Coach for America, a nonprofit that works to develop character in athletes. "When you have that much power over boys you have to have accountability."

Ehrmann travels the country talking about how the goal of high school sports should be not just to win games, but to develop character.

"It's time for all of Chattanooga to pull back and do a re-evaluation of coaching and the reason we have sports," he said. "[Sports] programs across the country are now focused on winning at the expense of [students'] moral development."

Ehrmann said coaches must be trained and held accountable for teaching players about empathy and moral courage. He said sports - like American culture - traditionally teach boys to "man up" and be physically dominant.

"Power, dominance and control is what took place [during the alleged assault,]" Ehrmann said. "This is a part of a culture. Boys are taught to earn the fear and respect of others through physical strength."

Ehrmann said high school sports programs need to work counter to this cultural view and be used as a tool to prevent the type of violence that victimized the Ooltewah youth.

Jackson Katz, founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, is an author and speaker on the topic of gender violence prevention in athletics. He said what happened to the Ooltewah student is tragic, but predictable.

"We have a huge problem in our society of rape and violence," Katz said. "Ooltewah is hardly unique in this. It's a societal problem that keeps popping up all over the place."

Katz said sports culture plays an extremely influential role in shaping gender and masculinity. Stopping such behavior will mean teaching boys of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds to react contrary to much of what they're taught in American culture and sports.

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

He said sports offer a unique opportunity to address violence, and he founded a mentorship program in schools, universities and with professional sports teams across the nation to train coaches, administrators and team leaders how to prevent violence.

Coaches need to be held responsible for the actions and culture of their team, Katz said. School and district administrators, along with board members, also should be held responsible for crafting the education policies and practices that help educate about and prevent violence, Katz said.

"People's impulse is to talk about the individual perpetrators or the coach, but real, honest introspection also has to take place at a broader school district level," Katz said.

He believes some sort of in-depth sexual assault training should be required in every school, and reinforced on sports teams. Not just a one-hour course at the beginning of the year, he said, but ongoing conversation and instruction.

"This can be an uncomfortable topic to address up front," Katz said. "But look at the result here of silence. Look at the result of inaction."

He said kids also need to be taught the importance of standing up to violence and misbehavior, and trained in how to address it. Things could have been different the night of the assault if students had been better trained to deal with violence, he said.

Mothers of two boys who were on the Ooltewah basketball team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., said the assault of began as hazing. The moms said that during the trip their sons were repeatedly hurt and told to keep quiet.

The mothers will not be identified by the Times Free Press to protect their sons' identities.

These moms said their sons were punched, kicked, thrown to the ground and hit with pool cues. But their boys returned home without injuries, unlike their teammate who was rushed to the hospital. Sources told the Times Free Press the injured boy had a ruptured colon and bladder from the assault by three older teammates.

One mom said her son told her that as the hazing was taking place, before the boy was assaulted, the older teammates told him these actions were normal.

The mom said the older boys told her son, "This is what you do to freshmen; y'all will be doing it, too, one day."

Her son was scared and embarrassed to tell anyone what was taking place, she said.

The other mom said the assault was an attempt "to demasculinize a young man" and was a predatory act.

The injured boy has been released from the hospital and is recovering at home, according to his aunt.

Meanwhile, court officials in Sevierville, Tenn., said they cannot release court documents because the boys are juveniles. Officials would not confirm if the accused boys had the bond hearing scheduled last week or if they remain at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Facility.

Tennessee law says the court documents can be released with the judge's permission because of the severity of the aggravated rape charges and because the accused boys are at least 14 years old. Court officials did not return multiple requests for comment last week.

It has not been determined if the boys will be tried as adults, which could result in harsher penalties. It also has not been decided if the boys will be detained or supervised in Hamilton County.

Ooltewah's basketball team is scheduled to play at home against Hixson High School on Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Highlander said that, despite the actions of a few students, it is important for people to support the Ooltewah community during this time.

"Ooltewah graduates and students should still hold their heads high," Highlander said. "It's really bad if people judge the 1,600 kids at the school by the actions of three."

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

More Ooltewah rape case stories

Upcoming Events