Sohn: Let Ooltewah's darkest day be new dawn for schools

The Hamilton County Board of Education has an opportunity to harness the public's attention to schools in a way that will force change.
The Hamilton County Board of Education has an opportunity to harness the public's attention to schools in a way that will force change.

Hamilton County Schools have never been in the news as much as they are right now in the aftermath of a Dec. 22 hazing-turned-rape incident.

And it goes without saying that this is not the kind of news any of us want to hear.

But the news that a 15-year-old Ooltewah basketball player had to undergo surgery after his colon and bladder were ruptured during a rape with a pool cue while at a tournament stay-over in Gatlinburg just before Christmas has galvanized parents, students and citizens of our county to be concerned and pay attention to Hamilton County school news in a way that nothing else has ever done.

News that data show 60 percent of all Hamilton County third-graders do not read on grade level barely raised a ripple.

Reporting that Hamilton County businesses have 15,000 unfilled jobs because they can't find educationally qualified applicants prompted a cynical online comment or two.

The announcement that students here tested below the state average in nine of the 10 tested TCAP categories by as many as 16.7 percentage points seemed largely to fall on deaf ears.

Explainer stories about new state tests prompted one or two disgruntled comments from our school board about what administrators said would be extra testing time. (It's actually less testing time.)

But the news of the hazing/rape has prompted day after day of public reaction stories. Two citizen petitions sprang to life, the school board chairman scheduled two public discussion forums for outraged parents, the superintendent scheduled a rare news conference, a school board member held a prayer vigil for worried students and parents, and someone set up a Go Fund Me account for the victim.

One petition, seeking names to urge that the three former basketball team members charged in juvenile court with aggravated rape be tried as adults, has garnered about 4,700 signatures. The other, seeking names to urge the firing of school Superintendent Rick Smith, had 1,321 signers on Thursday.

These and other reactions have prompted 14 front page newspaper stories about Hamilton County schools since the sordid incident was first reported on Dec. 29 - 17 days ago.

UnifiEd, a local nonprofit education advocacy group, began in August seeking 10,000 signatures on a petition called the "Pact for Public Education." It is a plea to our school administrators and school board to be transparent with a measurable plan of action to improve public education here. Even though this editorial page made its own plea for residents to sign that "Pact," the online petition has garnered just 2,500 signers in five months.

And in December - just days before the rape made headlines - the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and others told reporters and editors here that in the coming 100 or so days, local leaders from the chamber, local education groups and foundations would be convening community conversations to discuss a new report about our schools - Chattanooga 2.0.

The 100 days are ticking, but some involved have privately said the Ooltewah incident has sucked the oxygen away from that effort. Some have suggested it needs a pause.

Please, no!

Please seize the day!

While the school system has public attention like it has never known before - while this tragedy has struck the nerves of every mom and dad in the region - take this terrible moment and turn it into one that will make our school system finally match our city. The same city that used to have the dirtiest air in the country and now is known as an outdoor mecca with a crystal clear mountain and downtown vista.

Take this dark moment and maintain our region's concentrated attention to build a better school system with a supportive and engaged public.

Just hours after Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston announced he had filed charges against three adults in connection with the Ooltewah incident - two coaches and the athletic director face counts of violating the Tennessee law requiring mandatory reporting of child abuse or suspected child sex abuse - school board Chairman Jonathan Welch agreed, saying now is the time to press for change. As bad as these dark January days have been, they have forced a public focus on schools, and he hopes to keep and channel that focus.

"It is easy to stay the same. It's comfortable to stay the same. Better is different, and better [and different] is not comfortable. If this makes us better, I don't want us to be comfortable. We should be looking for better. If this is what it takes for us to get there, then let's at least use this for some good to come out of it ultimately," he said.

Jared Bigham, a former educator who is pushing the Chattanooga 2.0 plan, also wants to push forward.

"It breaks our heart that the incident occurred and it's heart-wrenching but it makes us realize," he said. "We forget that there are children behind all these stories and behind all the data and behind all these policies. When something like this happens, it makes supporting our kids more personal."

Yes. So let's make change happen.

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