Greeson: Hamilton school board needs to rebuild trust after Ooltewah

Dr. Jonathan Welch, left, speaks to Superintendent Rick Smith during the Hamilton County School Board meeting in this file photo.
Dr. Jonathan Welch, left, speaks to Superintendent Rick Smith during the Hamilton County School Board meeting in this file photo.
photo Jay Greeson
How to handle an incident as horrific as the Ooltewah nightmare is not in a rule book.

No, when teammates escalate hazing to hatred - and the thought of shoving a pool cue into a 15-year-old's rectum and rupturing organs is unimaginable for most of us - the fallout is uncharted waters.

How, after all, do you deal with inexplicable violence?

"There's not a playbook on how to deal with something like this," Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Jonathan Welch said. "This is new to all of us."

Welch was part of the four-minute facade last Wednesday. He realized quickly that his abbreviated comments fell short; the loud and impassioned reaction confirmed it.

"I'm a dentist," Welch said Wednesday afternoon. "I'm not a PR guy."

Welch changed course with an apology issued Sunday morning, which was followed Monday with a news conference in which schools Superintendent Rick Smith also voiced regret over last week's four-minute miscalculation.

The public wants answers, of course, but those answers are difficult to relay when dealing with a legal investigation and its ramifications - both for the victim and potentially for those who will be found directly or indirectly accountable.

This shook all of us, changing the perspective of what is possible in our local schools, and that makes this feel different in some ways.

For Welch and his colleagues who are charged with overseeing our schools, that horror was magnified. It's a horror that's undeniable, but it's one that comes with a certain amount of pause.

"It scares me. And as terrible as it is, if this poor kid doesn't go to the hospital, we don't know anything about this and it would continue," Welch said.

That knowledge demands action, and Welch knows it. He's committed to doing everything he can to try to make sure this doesn't happen again, but there are no guarantees in a world that shows new threads of evil far too often.

But this happened, and this happened on this board's watch, and they are the first line of folks from whom we seek answers.

It's a responsibility that Welch understands and values.

"We do not know all the answers yet, and that was not expressed well," Welch said. "We are grieving and grasping for answers just like everyone else."

Welch and the board will reconvene later today. There will not be many more answers as the investigation - by law enforcement and within the school system - continues.

Welch is aware of the public's questions and angst. But rushing to judgment is not the same as working for answers.

And shouldn't that be what our next step is about, answers? That and accountability.

"Student safety is always one of our concerns, but if you had asked me before Christmas what we do well, student safety may have been one of the answers," Welch said. "Now it's one of the highest priorities."

Welch and the board have to juggle a multitude of priorities. Test scores are bad. Facilities are crumbling. Morale within the system is down.

This becomes the hot-button issue as the school district hopes to generate support for the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative.

Those other items now wait. Welch and company know they have to rebuild trust and deliver answers. They have to adjust a hazing/bullying policy that is substandard and ensure there are proper punishments handed to those who made mistakes in the days before and after the assault against a 15-year-old Ooltewah student.

"There is a lot of work to do," Welch said. "It starts with policy, but it doesn't matter how good the policy is if there's not accountability."

More Ooltewah rape case stories

Contact Jay Greeson at His "Right to the Point" column runs on A2 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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