Rick Smith steps down in wake of Ooltewah High rape case

"You're the leader of the whole situation, and you have to take the fire, and I think it's an honorable thing."

The Hamilton County Board of Education voted Thursday night to buy out Superintendent Rick Smith's contract.

The decision came at Smith's request in the wake of public criticism regarding his handling of the alleged rape of an Ooltewah High School basketball player by his teammates in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Smith spoke publicly for less than a minute Thursday, saying he made the decision to step down from the district's top position without pressure from the board.

"The tragedy we have all experienced in the last couple weeks is one I know we'll all deal with and struggle with," Smith said. "But we will get to a place where we start to heal from this and will be better for it."

Since the assault on Dec. 22, Smith has been blamed for the school district's lack of public response to the attack, and for allowing the team to play four additional basketball games after the assault before canceling the season.

Smith waited 20 days before speaking publicly about the situation, and said in hindsight he regrets that silence and wishes he had canceled the team's basketball season immediately instead of waiting two weeks.

At Thursday's meeting, school board member George Ricks said he is upset about the whole situation, but he said Smith did the right thing asking for a buyout.

"You're the leader of the whole situation, and you have to take the fire, and I think it's an honorable thing," Ricks said of Smith's willingness to leave his position.

Ricks said he is ashamed it took a tragedy to wake the community to issues in public education, as years of failing test scores have not created much stir.

"Whomever we bring in here next needs to be someone that can take this district forward, and I mean forward," Ricks said. "It needs to be a brand new day."

The school board voted 6-3 in favor of the buyout. School board members Rhonda Thurman, Greg Martin and David Testerman voted against Smith's request.

Thurman and Martin both said they thought it was too soon for the board to vote to approve a buyout because they have still not heard the findings of the criminal investigation.

Testerman was vocal about his support of Smith, saying rumors and lies are circulating in the media and throughout the public and that Smith has been unfairly attacked.

"You'll never convince me that this [buyout] is right for our county," Testerman yelled from the dais.

School board attorney Scott Bennett said he will begin negotiations with Smith on a separation agreement, and once one is reached, the board will have a minimum of 15 days to review it before voting. Bennett said Smith will remain superintendent until the board votes on the buyout.

Smith has worked in the school system for more than three decades, and has been at the helm for the past four years. The board in July 2015 renewed his contract through July 2019, and he receives an annual salary of nearly $200,000 plus benefits. Prior to becoming superintendent, Smith served as a principal, coach and in several administrative roles.

Since city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools merged in 1997 there have been three superintendents.

Jesse Register came here to oversee the merger and served until 2006. After he resigned, he served his final contract year as a consultant for $150,000. In May 2011, the school board voted to buy out then-superintendent Jim Scales' contract for $282,000.

Following the board's vote Thursday, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger released a statement commending Smith for his commitment and dedication to the students of Hamilton County.

"Today is a difficult day for education," Coppinger said. " We need to unite, to put aside our differences and work together for our common goal, which is the success of our children."

Coppinger said the school board's decision on a replacement for Smith "will impact the future of Hamilton County's education for a generation of students to come," and he challenged the board to be thoughtful in its decision.

Two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old are charged in Sevier County with aggravated rape and aggravated assault of a 15-year-old player who was taken to a hospital in Knoxville where doctors performed surgery to repair a ruptured bladder and colon. They were not allowed to return to Ooltewah High School this year.

According to court documents, four freshman players were assaulted with pool cues and "subjected to apparent sexual assault," during the Gatlinburg trip.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston charged three adults last week with failing to report child abuse or suspected child sexual abuse, which is required by state law.

Thursday morning, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw denied motions to dismiss the charges against the adults, Ooltewah High School's head coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery, assistant coach Karl Williams, and Athletic Director Allard "Jesse" Nayadley.

Philyaw and attorney Lee Davis, who represents Nayadley, both asked during the hearing why other top school officials are not also facing charges for failing to report abuse.

Davis argued if Nayadley is being charged, so should the superintendent, assistant superintendent and the school's principal because they also were made aware of the assault and did not notify the proper authorities.

"If [Nayadley] is sitting here then there should be three more benches [for other administrators,]" Davis said.

Pinkston said he charged the three school officials because they had firsthand knowledge of what happened and each talked to victims while in Gatlinburg.

Philyaw decided Thursday to schedule a preliminary hearing for the three adults for Feb. 15, noting that the several different statutes in Tennessee law that deal with reporting abuse are vague and make handling this case of mandatory reporting difficult.

During the hearing Thursday, Pinkston said the law is very clear about abuse and that inaction by a guardian is abuse.

"It is very clear that no one that cared for these children [during the trip] ever contacted the appropriate authorities," Pinkston said.

All three defense attorneys, Curtis Bowe III, Johnny Houston and Davis, argued before Philyaw that his court does not have jurisdiction over this case since the assault occurred in Sevier County.

Philyaw told them he has jurisdiction in this case since the juveniles involved are residents of Hamilton County, adding he has probable cause to believe they failed to report the abuse.

Bowe, who represents Montgomery, told Philyaw that authorities in Sevier County have cleared these men of any wrongdoing, and that no facts have been presented to show that Montgomery knew of the abuse.

Houston also argued that a proper burden of proof has not been presented against Williams, his client.

Near the end of the hearing, Philyaw said the law makes it clear that protecting children is of the utmost importance, and he hopes this hearing reminds the public that reporting suspected abuse is an important responsibility.

"The statute doesn't say telling a doctor is enough. The statute doesn't say telling a police officer is good enough," Philyaw said. "There are reporting requirements."

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

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