Hamilton schools out of compliance with state law for hazing, bullying policy

Akia Lewis, left, talks Tuesday, January 12, 2016 at UnifiED, about the need for stricter anti-bullying policies in the Hamilton County School system as Nick Wilkins, center, and Elizabeth Crews look on.
Akia Lewis, left, talks Tuesday, January 12, 2016 at UnifiED, about the need for stricter anti-bullying policies in the Hamilton County School system as Nick Wilkins, center, and Elizabeth Crews look on.

The Ooltewah incident was really a wakeup call that policy change can prevent serious issues

photo Akia Lewis, left, talks Tuesday, January 12, 2016 at UnifiED, about the need for stricter anti-bullying policies in the Hamilton County School system as Nick Wilkins, center, and Elizabeth Crews look on.

State law requires student discrimination, harassment, hazing and bullying policies to include:

A description of the type of behavior expected from each student. A statement of consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person who commits an act of harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying. A procedure for reporting an act of harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying, including a provision that permits a person to report such acts anonymously. However, nothing may be construed to permit formal disciplinary action solely on the basis of an anonymous report. A procedure for a prompt investigation. A statement of the manner in which a LEA shall respond after an act has been reported, investigated, and confirmed. A statement of consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person found to have committed an act of harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying. A statement prohibiting reprisal or retaliation against any person who reports an act of harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying, and stating the consequences and appropriate remedial action for such actions. A statement of the consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person found to have falsely accused another of having committed an act of harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying. A statement of how the policy is to be publicized within the district, including a notice that the policy applies to behavior at school-sponsored activities. The identification by job title of school officials responsible for ensuring that the policy is implemented. A procedure for discouraging and reporting conduct aimed at defining a student in a sexual manner or conduct impugning the character of a student based on allegations of sexual promiscuity. *Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Special Citizen’s Advisory Committee:

Garrick Hall, wrestling Coach, Hixson High School, chairmanWayne Brown, Bridge-n-the-GapGrant Crosslin, Community volunteerEverlina Holmes, UnifiEdJudge Rob Philyaw, Hamilton County Juvenile CourtMarcus Perez, Elite Behavior AnalysisLee Rogers, parent and community volunteerThis committee will work in partnership with the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council and the Hamilton County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.Source: School board member Greg Martin

The Hamilton County Board of Education's policy on student harassment, hazing and bullying does not meet the requirements of state law and isn't on par with similar policies in other large school districts across the state.

In the wake of the alleged assault and rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman by three of his basketball teammates, the school board plans to meet today at 5 p.m. to discuss the policy, as well as procedures that apply to overnight trips, such as the basketball team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the assault and rape reportedly occurred on Dec. 22.

A family member of the victim said the incident might have been prevented if the school board's policy complied with Tennessee law and a way to anonymously report hazing and bullying was in place. The family member will not be named to protect the victim's identity.

Several sources have told the Times Free Press the assault against the 15-year-old was retaliatory, after he told the coach that freshmen on the team were being hazed.

Records from Sevier County Juvenile Court state that two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old raped a 15-year-old freshman with a pool cue, causing extensive internal injuries that required surgery to repair. The three teens face charges of aggravated assault and aggravated rape and were dismissed from the team and will not be allowed to return to the school.

According to state law, school districts are required to have a policy prohibiting harassment, intimidation and bullying, and the policy must include 13 specified provisions. Hamilton County's policy doesn't include two of the required provisions and minimally meets the standards set on a handful of other provisions.

Specifically, Hamilton County's policy does not include a way for students to anonymously report incidents or a procedure discouraging students from discussing others in a sexual manner or smearing their character because of allegations of sexual promiscuity.

Last week, the school board's attorney, Scott Bennett, and Superintendent Rick Smith said no Hamilton County employee is believed to have violated school board policy during the trip.

After being asked to comment Wednesday about the policy not being in compliance with state law, Bennett responded in an email saying: "Way too busy to look at this now."

School board member Greg Martin, chairman of the policy committee, said he has asked Bennett to look at the policy and determine if it meets the law's requirements.

"We obviously want to do our due diligence to ensure we're in compliance with all laws," Martin said.

Tennessee Department of Education Spokeswoman Ashley Ball said it is up to local school boards, in conjunction with their attorneys, to draft and adopt bullying and harassment policies.

"If a violation of the law is brought to the department's attention, we work with the district to immediately correct," Ball wrote in an email.

Ball did not respond to questions asking if the state will work to ensure Hamilton County's policy comes into compliance with state law, or if any consequences for not being in compliance exist.

When asked about the board's policy not complying with state law, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said "there needs to be some consequence in the law for board members not following the state law, and there needs to be some consequences in their own policy about what to do with a board attorney who does not advise them to be in compliance with all the laws."

Students across the district knew before the assault of an Ooltewah student that the school board's policy didn't meet the requirements of law.

Nick Wilkins, a senior at Ooltewah High School, has been researching for months the district's bullying and harassment policy with UnifiEd's Student Voice Team, a group of about 20 students from across the county who research and advocate for issues in public education.

"The Ooltewah incident was really a wake-up call that policy change can prevent serious issues," he said.

Wilkins said the Student Voice Team decided to look at the policy because they saw bullying, hazing and harassment as issues in Hamilton County schools. It didn't take long before the team of students realized that the board's one-and-a-half page policy does not fulfill the requirements set by lawmakers, he said.

"We realized there is a lot of room for improvement," Wilkins said. "And we started looking at other counties and districts across the south and realized there are districts doing a lot better than us, and we can learn from them."

Wilkins pointed to the board policies in Shelby County (Memphis), Metro Nashville and Atlanta as examples of bullying, hazing and harassment policies that are well-developed and more thorough than Hamilton County's.

He said the Student Advocacy Team specifically wants to see Hamilton County's policy:

- Be more specific about the consequences for bullying, intimidation, hazing and harassment.

- Include a procedure for how reports of bullying and harassment will be handled, making schools more accountable for how they handle reports of this type of misconduct.

- Clarify how the statement will be publicized to students, recommending that it be distributed to students each year.

- Creating an anonymous reporting mechanism for students at each school.

According to state law, students cannot be disciplined based on anonymous reports, but Wilkins said allowing students to report anonymously will provide the district and principals with more information to help prevent incidents from occurring and allowing them to track trends of bullying and harassment within schools and groups of students.

Akia Lewis, a junior at The Howard School, is also a member of the Student Voice Team, and said she hopes the Ooltewah incident will encourage the school board and district administrators to take student input more seriously.

"There is not a culture of listening to students and using their voice," Lewis said. "I think students have a lot to say We can help."

Elizabeth Crews, executive director of UnifiEd, and the students have each sent letters to the school board addressing the problems they see in the current policy and say they have received minimal responses.

The group was told that specifics for some of their requests may be included in a book of procedures, but those procedures are not currently available on the district's website and are not included in student handbooks, according to Crews.

"I'm proud of the work these students have done," Crews said. "And their voices are a huge missing piece in the district."

Crews asked Martin if one of the students who has been researching and developing recommendations for an improved policy could be on the Special Citizen's Advisory Committee he created. Crews said she was told that students from the Superintendent's Advisory Council would be the ones providing input.

Martin told the Times Free Press he wants this advisory committee to have a variety of community members who are practically impacted by these policies to contribute their recommendations to the board.

Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade said the district has been working for a couple months to implement an anonymous reporting system for students that will be available on each school's and the district's website, and will comply with state law.

"It will be very beneficial to the school system," McDade said, adding that he hopes it will be up and running today.

He assumes once the system is in place it will be added to the school board's policy, and said the information collected will be distributed to the individual schools and district officials.

Earlier this week Smith reassigned Ooltewah's basketball coach, Andre Montgomery, to the district's Textbook Depository pending the results of the criminal investigation into the rape of a player.

According to a letter in Montgomery's personnel file dated Jan. 11, Smith told him that "the purpose of this transfer is to ensure the efficient operation of Ooltewah High School throughout the upcoming weeks."

Smiths also tells Montgomery he is not to initiate contact with any employee of the school system, attend any school-sponsored event without permission or discuss the events of Dec. 22, the day of the assault, with anyone besides law enforcement, investigative officials and attorneys in the case.

District officials confirmed Wednesday that Montgomery, who has been teaching at Ooltewah on a transitional teaching license, is on track to complete a program at Lee University that will qualify him to earn a teaching license.

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

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