Cooper: Hazing policy examination better late than never

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, shown inside the Hamilton County School Board meeting room, has been faced with a hazing incident before.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, shown inside the Hamilton County School Board meeting room, has been faced with a hazing incident before.

It's not like there wasn't a serious hazing precedent - before last month's pool-cue rape of an Ooltewah High School basketball player - involving a Hamilton County Schools sports team.

In 2001, two Lookout Valley High School baseball players were arrested in a reported hazing incident in which one player held down another player, and a third waved his exposed genitals in the face of the victim.

"I believe it got out of hand," then-Assistant Superintendent Rick Smith said at the time, "and I don't like it. Not any of us like to see that happen."

The two students perpetrating the hazing were dismissed from the baseball team and suspended from school for the rest of the year.

One of the two arrested perpetrators, already 18, was granted guilty-plea diversion on an assault charge. The other arrested perpetrator was a juvenile.

The victim and his father later sued the two arrested players, several other players who participated in the hazing and who were suspended from school for their actions, the high school baseball coach and the Hamilton County Board of Education for $2.25 million in damages in Hamilton County Circuit Court.

It is unclear if the case was dismissed, ever reached trial or was settled out of court.

Whatever the disposition, Hamilton County Schools had 14 years to put in place a policy involving hazing incidents. And, as if to give the school district a shove, the Tennessee General Assembly amended state law that same year by adding a section - sponsored by then-Sen. David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain, and state Rep. Beth Harwell, now speaker of the state House - on hazing.

Included in the section was wording directing that "the governing body of each LEA (local education agency) shall adopt a written policy prohibiting hazing by any student or organization operating under the sanction of the LEA."

Locally, hazing apparently falls under the district's definition of bullying, harassment and cyber-bullying, which is defined as "unwanted, aggressive repeated behaviors that involve a real or perceived power imbalance. The imbalance of power involves the use of physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity to control or harm others."

Each local school district's hazing policy must include 13 specific provisions, several of which Hamilton's County's policy does not have and several of which the county may only minimally meet.

If Hamilton County Schools had the proper policies in place, a family member of the Ooltewah High School victim said, the December incident in Gatlinburg may not have happened.

Although school district attorney Scott Bennett told the Times Free Press Wednesday he was "way too busy" to look into whether district policies complied with state law, he has been asked by school board policy committee Chairman Greg Martin to do just that.

A local student team which had been studying the district's bullying and harassment policy, it turns out, could give the school board attorney a heads up. Members of UnifiEd's Student Voice Team said the local policy not only doesn't fill the state requirements but also is not as thorough as policies in place in Metro Nashville, Shelby County (Memphis) and Atlanta.

Whether the Special Citizens Advisory Committee, chosen this week to help the school board review its harassment-related policies and procedures, will seek student opinion remains to be seen. But input from students who are around those experiencing such behavior would be helpful.

"There is not a culture of listening to students and using their voice," Akia Lewis, a Howard School junior and Voice team member, told the newspaper. "I think students have a lot to say . We can help."

Critical among the needed provisions for the local district is a way for students to anonymously report incidents of hazing. Although accused students cannot be disciplined over anonymous reports, such reports would provide authorities information with which to track bullying and perhaps to prevent further incidents from occurring.

After all, the victim in the Ooltewah case, sources have told the newspaper, was raped after he reported previous hazing to the now-reassigned coach, Andre Montgomery.

More than three weeks since the incident occurred, with an outraged public stewing with questions, a statement by school board Chairman Dr. Jonathan Welch apologizing for not being more forthcoming, a news conference by now-Superintendent Smith and a school board work session this week are welcome.

Board members can't change what happened to the Ooltewah victim - and may not have been able to anyway. But going forward, they can take strong action to update and improve policies and procedures and commit to a more transparent communication strategy that can only help if - heaven forbid - a similar situation happens in the future.

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