Cook: Crimes of silence in Ooltewah

A large crowd gathers inside the school board meeting room Wednesday night.
A large crowd gathers inside the school board meeting room Wednesday night.
photo David Cook

View other columns by David Cook

For a moment, let's imagine the pool cue didn't rupture the teen's colon, didn't tear into his bladder.

Let's imagine it did less damage.

That means the 15-year-old freshman basketball player would have never been taken that December night to the Sevierville hospital.

No doctors would have seen him.

No police.

No media.

The boy? There is a terrible, very real possibility that he would have stumbled back to his room. There, weeping and bleeding, to internalize his suffering and shame, refusing, in the way that many rape victims do, to go public.

And the three teenage teammates charged with the assault would have woken up the next morning and played their tournament game as if nothing happened.

The rest of us would have never known.

The Ooltewah rape would have remained a secret.

With nothing to keep it from happening again.

That night in Gatlinburg, two crimes were committed: the crime of rape. And the crime of silence.

Were it not for the rushed trip to the hospital, who knows whether anyone there that night - victim or bystander - would have found the courage to come forward with the truth.

And even if so, there is the very real possibility they would have been hushed away into silence.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," Dr. Martin Luther King once said.

As we look hard at the state of athletics and violence in this area, especially on the eve of King Day, we must also engage ourselves by looking at the state of conscience and courage. What systems do we have in place that encourage truth-telling at all levels: from students, teachers, parents and citizens?

How receptive are we to dissent? How welcome do we make the whistleblower? Had one of the bystanders there on that rape night come forward, who would have been his ally?

Who would have believed him?

Earlier this week, two Ooltewah coaches and the school's athletic director were charged with knowing of the abuse yet failing to report it. Thursday night, parents and students from across the county confronted school system officials for what they say is a history of silence.

One woman said her son had brain damage after being beaten up on a bus. Students said it's hard to walk between classes without hallway violence. The mother of one bullied child said she's been seeking desperately for someone to listen to her story.

"To hell and back," she said.

This now means the investigation moves beyond Ooltewah and into the realm of corporate understanding: what administrator has known about violence, yet failed to act?

"The greatest sin of our time," King once said, "is not the few who have destroyed but the vast majority who sat idly by."

It takes a very strong soul-muscle to speak with conscience and courage.

The good news? It can be taught; we can instruct our students on how to develop conscience and courage, and what the antidote looks like to silence and bystanderism.

In these raw days, as our schools seem to have been cleft open, we must examine the ways in which we encourage truth-telling.

And the ways we don't.

* The Hamilton County school system has created a committee to investigate bullying and hazing.

Yet what happened at Ooltewah is rape, not hazing. Such a shrugging of terminology seems to reflect a still-uncertain grip on the deep reality of the issue. (Why not a committee on sexual violence?)

* Since the attack, school officials have said repeatedly they want students to feel safe.

Yet what of gay students who, for years, have endured bullying with little, if any, genuine response from school officials, the same officials who have slow-walked many meaningful ways to accept, welcome or protect them? Has their safety not also mattered? Is gender violence somehow secondary to athletic violence?

* For years, the school system's policy on bullying and hazing has not met the minimum state standards.

* The school board has suggested it wants transparency and answers, yet for years, the board refused an open public comment period during its meetings, which all but guaranteed a system of silence. (Recently, with tragic irony, the school system even imposed on itself a "gag order" that was not even real.)

The larger picture? Continued dysfunction and frustration met with apathy and disinterest from officials. State tests treated like state secrets. Teachers without the freedom or control to teach as they see fit.

It adds up to a culture of silence.

"Silence is betrayal," King said.

David Cook teaches at McCallie School and writes a Sunday column for the Times Free Press. Contact him at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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