Robin Smith: What Hamilton County Schools got wrong about Ooltewah

Lessons from Ooltewah: credibility doesn't come with a refill

Hamilton County School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch, center, reads a prepared statement to an overflow crowd Wednesday night as Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, left, listens.
Hamilton County School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch, center, reads a prepared statement to an overflow crowd Wednesday night as Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, left, listens.
People are pretty good at discerning hypocrisy and inconsistency, especially in elected officials, which cultivates their distrust and cynicism. The bungled handling of the Ooltewah High School basketball rape investigation - and the vehement public reaction to it - has provided a textbook lesson on what not to do.

To his credit, on Sunday, Jonathan Welch, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, acknowledged, appropriately, the missteps that have plagued the board and administration since three Ooltewah High basketball players were charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault in connection with a Dec. 22 brutal attack against a freshman teammate in Gatlinburg.

"I came up short and I apologize. I will do better," Welch wrote in a statement.

Welch came up short when he and the board listened solely to those who viewed this horrific episode as a legal matter to manage rather than acknowledging a 15-year-old was harmed on a taxpayer-supported trip while under the supposed supervision of taxpayer-funded personnel representing a taxpayer-funded institution.

Silence from the board and administration - in the absence of a broad gag order - was the wrong approach.

School district attorney Scott Bennett noted that law enforcement officials and prosecutors of the district attorneys' offices from both Sevier County - the jurisdiction of the crime - and Hamilton County have "told the school district not to conduct its own investigation" and that our local school district officials "were advised not to comment."

Those statements were made after a four-minute school board meeting last Wednesday night.

We should all be relieved law enforcement is leading the "ongoing" investigation. The depravity exposed in this situation should be dealt with as swiftly as possible, with appropriate remedy provided to the victim and appropriate punishment given to the juveniles charged.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said last Wednesday that "no evidence any adult acted improperly" has been found thus far. Yet, at the very same meeting, school board members listened as Welch read from a prepared statement: "The public is looking for answers and, unfortunately, we won't have any tonight."

Let's see. A 15-year-old was raped with a pool cue so violently by three of his teammates that his bowel and bladder were ruptured. And the public is told, essentially, "Don't worry. Grown-ups in the education system did their jobs." So the "ongoing" investigation already has cleared the adults?

Yeah, that's our priority. Citizens want assurances adults have been oblivious to heinous behavior to protect their employment, tenure and benefits.

That law enforcement is leading this investigation establishes one thing about this criminal matter: From this point forward, all updates will be provided by law enforcement in Sevier and Hamilton counties.

On a policy level, the Hamilton County Department of Education distributes a "Parental/Student Notification Form" annually that must be signed and returned to the school. The document addresses "Code of Conduct," "Zero Tolerance Offenses" and other topics related to conduct on school (i.e., taxpayer-owned) property. Violence, bullying and assault are listed among acts punishable by expulsion or short-term or long-term suspension.

Existing policies - that "each school administration shall ensure that the contents are understood by students attending their school" - are in place.

The school district attorney may want silence but the public needs answers on the failure of the enforcement of policies to protect students. Remember, credibility and trust do not come with a refill.

Robin Smith, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, is owner of Rivers Edge Alliance.

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