School board chair apologizes for handling of Ooltewah rape case

Ooltewah High School sign
Ooltewah High School sign

Jonathan Welch, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, released a statementSunday taking responsibility and apologizing for not answering more of the community's questions during last week's board meeting.

Welch said he was acting on the advice of counsel and the Hamilton County District Attorney, who both told him not to talk about the criminal investigation resulting from the alleged rape and assault of an Ooltewah High School freshman by three of his older teammates on Dec. 22.

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More than 100 people crowded the board room last Wednesday night hoping for answers, and instead left upset after Welch read a prepared statement and adjourned the meeting in less than four minutes.

Welch said Sunday that it is the board's responsibility to oversee the school system and to provide parents and the community with information about what the board is doing to find out what happened during the team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., and ensure that it never happens again.

"I came up short on both Wednesday night -- and I apologize," Welch wrote. "I will do better."

In his statement, Welch said it is the board's responsibility to:

- Ensure that the district is fully cooperating with law enforcement during the investigations in both Sevier and Hamilton County.

- Determine if Superintendent Rick Smith responded and acted appropriately during the incident.

- Evaluate the responsibility of school personnel and chaperones on overnight or out of town school trips, and to confirm that the district policies and procedures in place are being aggressively followed to prevent any kid of hazing, bullying or harassment.

- Engage in transparent conversations with the public and media about the things they are doing, and listen to the questions and concerns that have arisen from this incident.

Welch said the board is doing all four of these things, and has scheduled two public forums in the next two weeks to help address concerns in the community.

The first public forum will take place after Thursday night's school board work session. The second will be held Jan. 21, following the board's regular business meeting. Both meetings will be held at the Hamilton County Department of Education Central Office located at 6703 Bonny Oaks Drive.

"I cannot take back any of the mistakes made in trying to protect the integrity of the independent investigations and the rights and privacy of those involved," Welch wrote. "But we can work to do better in sharing what we are doing -- and to listen even more carefully to parents, educators and taxpayers in our community as we move forward."

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

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