Cooper: Public needed reassurance it didn't get surrounding Ooltewah incident

Staff photo by Tim Barber The Hamilton County School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch, center, reads a prepared statement to an overflow crowd Wednesday night as School Superintendent Rick Smith, left, listens.
Staff photo by Tim Barber The Hamilton County School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch, center, reads a prepared statement to an overflow crowd Wednesday night as School Superintendent Rick Smith, left, listens.
Scores of people came to the meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education on Wednesday night because they wanted reassurance.

They wanted to hear from their school superintendent and their elected leaders everything they could legally say about an incident involving a freshman Ooltewah High School basketball player reportedly raped on a basketball trip last month.

They wanted to know what we want to know: If the school board and administration are reviewing policies and procedures about hazing, abuse, harassment and the like. They wanted to know if their children are safe at school, in the locker room, on a field trip or band competition. They wanted to know what can the school board do? What can the superintendent do? What can the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association do?

Those who came to the meeting at the school district headquarters off Bonny Oaks Drive wanted to hear from their representatives that the reported rape and assault was an isolated incident, not part of a culture they would have to worry about in other schools.

They were, in other words, just being parents.

What they heard was less than satisfying.

What they got was a brief prepared statement by Board of Education Chairman Jonathan Welch, saying "the public is looking for answers and, unfortunately, we won't have any tonight."

He admited the board has "a responsibility to the public to see the superintendent runs the system in an effective manner and that the system is run in a manner that instills confidence in the system. Unfortunately, in the last two weeks, that has not occurred."

The public, Welch said, "has been left with the impression that we on this board seem to not be aware or not truly concerned with the serious nature of the events that occurred with the Ooltewah basketball team."

Of course, he said, the board is concerned.

We do believe everyone involved is concerned, which is why what was left unsaid at the meeting was so telling.

It was all over in four minutes.

The public wasn't looking for answers. Concerned citizens wanted to leave the building with confidence they knew every step that could be taken was being taken to prevent this type of behavior from ever happening again. They wanted to feel like their presence mattered.

They left wanting.

Schools Superintendent Rick Smith addressed the incident briefly in a hastily called session in front of the public and media that had arrived and may have broken the Sunshine Law by doing so, having not announced that meeting beforehand.

"Because this is an ongoing investigation," the superintendent said, his back to the audience, "I'm extremely limited in what I can say or communicate publicly. But I do want everyone to know how heartbroke (sic) I am personally about this."

Smith also announced he canceled the rest of the team's season, a fact that had become public knowledge hours before.

That short meeting was adjourned, then the board went into private executive session with its attorney, and then the announced public meeting - all four minutes of it - was held.

Welch or Smith could have said far more during the public meeting without violating a gag order placed only on those charged in connection with the reported crime. They could have talked about prevention, school culture, sports culture, how to help students ask for help, how to help parents and students understand what is acceptable behavior and what isn't.

Welch referenced concerns about a perceived "cover-up," "a scapegoat," "lack of confidence in our system" and the "ability to effectively manage this situation" in his brief remarks, and said the school board must ask itself "what could have been done differently or better."

What should have been done differently Wednesday night was for the board and for Smith to give details - short of those involving the investigation - to reassure all of us that they would get to the bottom of the situation and that the students with whom they are daily entrusted would be safe.

The issue uppermost in the minds of the superintendent and the school board - after the safety of those who were hurt - should have been reassurance of the public.

Instead, what the public witnessed and what the public at large has observed over the last few weeks is a colossal communication nightmare.

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