Sohn: School and county leaders must lead, not hide

A large crowd waits for answers at the school board meeting room Wednesday.
photo 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.

It has taken two weeks for officials of Ooltewah High School and the Hamilton County Board of Education to take action after the Dec. 22 reported rape of a basketball player with a pool cue. And it has been two weeks too long.

The 15-year-old victim reportedly has told investigators that three other boys were abused and that "beatings " were something done "on a regular basis" in the locker room as a hazing "ritual for freshmen." One of the three older players who assaulted the victim also video recorded the incident, according to his aunt, who will not be identified by the Times Free Press to protect the victim's identity.

Three Ooltewah players were charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault by Gatlinburg Police - Gatlinburg because that's where the team was, with coaches and chaperones, to play in a tournament.

But as tragic as this incident has been - the victim had to have surgery for a ruptured colon and bladder - local school officials are compounding it with what can only be described as a total failure of public communication and accountability.

For an entire two weeks, school system administration officials have - outrageously - made no statement of reassurance or mea culpa or even asserted a plan for the future to reexamine the existing school policies about hazing - the ones that clearly failed here. Instead they are hiding behind "ongoing investigation" excuses.

Certainly it is understandable that school and county officials don't talk about the incident itself, or the investigation of it, or about the three older players who were dropped from the team.

But it's unforgivable that our county and school officials haven't made a timely public statement about policy and responsibility to students, parents, residents and taxpayers - some of whom had called for the cancellation of the basketball season for the team, as well as a separate independent investigation and the suspension of the coaches who were in charge of the team during the tournament trip.

Finally on Wednesday, multiple sources - the grapevine, not school officials - confirmed to the Times Free Press that Ooltewah High School's boys basketball season was canceled during a meeting with the team in the school's cafeteria at 2 p.m. that day. That was also the same day the students returned to school after the holiday break.

There is still no word about the coaches, who we think should resign. And still no word about a policy review.

In that information vacuum from school administrators and county leaders, however, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke earlier this week issued a directive to the Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Department to proactively address any potential for hazing within the city's facilities. Berke said the directive was specifically in response to the reported rape of the Ooltewah High School freshman.

"From the horrific incident currently in the news to conversations with multiple members of the Mayor's Youth Council, we understand this is a serious issue and we must reassure both victims and offenders that hazing is unacceptable in our community," Berke said in the statement.

Berke directed the Department of Youth and Family Development to review all procedures and policies "with an eye toward prohibiting hazing and bullying of any kind." He also called for training to take place for all staff working with students in centers across the city to ensure employees can recognize and quickly address hazing.

What part of leadership like this do our leaders at the school board, Central Office and County Commission not comprehend?

Certainly too much shouldn't be said about the specific Dec. 22 incident as the criminal investigation continues. But that is no excuse for the total stonewalling school officials exhibited in their first public board meeting since then.

While a standing-room-only crowd of parents and students waited in the school board meeting room, board members met privately with their attorney. And when the public portion of the meeting began, it lasted only moments.

"The public is looking for answers, and we won't have any tonight," school board Chairman Jonathan Welch told the crowd. He said he welcomed local law enforcement's investigation and all questions must go to the school board attorney, the county's District Attorney or the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

The meeting was then adjourned - in under four minutes.

Earlier Wednesday, Welch had called the incident "tragic, for lack of a better word." He added: "The board has to make sure the public knows we ensure students' safety. And we as a board must find a way to restore public trust and confidence."

It will be a long climb, and county officials have made a poor, poor start.

This is completely unacceptable.

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