Sohn: Finally, school officials choose to lead

Superintendent of Schools Rick Smith continues a statement Monday following comments by Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, near left, about the Ooltewah basketball team assault just before Christmas.

Board of Education Chairman Jonathan Welch made a tough but smart call Sunday when he released a statement apologizing for Wednesday's no-answers meeting that left parents, teachers and students throughout the county aghast at officials' apparent lack of empathy and accountability following the tragic news of an Ooltewah basketball player's aggravated rape with a pool cue by other players. The victim has undergone surgery for the rupture of his colon and bladder.

Welch adjourned the meeting last week in under four minutes after reading a short statement that basically said officials would answer no questions. He said he was acting at the time under the advice of the board's attorney and the Hamilton County District Attorney, but Welch on Sunday said it is the board's responsibility to keep parents and the community informed. He has scheduled two public forums in the next few weeks.

Similarly on Monday, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, three weeks after the Dec. 22 incident, scheduled a news conference to answer questions openly. He acknowledged that he made mistakes in failing to make public statements sooner and in not canceling the Ooltewah boys basketball season immediately after hearing of the incident the next day. Smith instead canceled the season last week after the team played four more games. He has since transferred the coach out of the school and away from students. Smith also acknowledged that the team should have been brought home immediately after the incident rather than continuing tournament play in Gatlinburg on Dec. 23.

"We will learn from this," Smith said Monday. "We will learn from this, and get better."

His message echoed Welch's: "I came up short [on providing board oversight and offering information to parents and the community] on Wednesday night - and I apologize. I will do better."

Welch's action to lead on Sunday took courage and honor. He clearly has both, and thankfully those traits have - at least for now - proven contagious, prompting Smith's Monday news conference to answer questions and offer school system reassurance.

We commend the much needed, albeit shamefully late, effort. And we implore these leaders to now stay the course.

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