Greeson: Court diversion aside, Ooltewah decision now on Kirk Kelly

Kirk Kelly
photo Jay Greeson

The nightmare assaults in the camping lodge outside of Gatlinburg, Tenn., a few days before Christmas have been dogging the Hamilton County school system ever since.

The ripples reached a tsunami level, serving as the wave that overtook the top leadership of the school district.

There was a litany of issues, of course - facilities in disrepair, awful test scores, you name it - but the emotional charge for leadership change was fueled by our outrage about the sexual assaults involving four underage Ooltewah High School basketball players on a team trip.

Those ripples landed three Ooltewah coaches - athletic director Jesse Nayadley, who was at the tournament and has a son on the team, head basketball coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery and volunteer assistant Karl Williams - in court on charges of failing to report child abuse.

On Wednesday, Nayadley accepted D.A. Neal Pinkston's offer of pretrial diversion. It's a catchy legal term that means Nayadley gets a few hours of community service, takes a class or two and this will be wiped off his criminal record.

It seems to be a fair offer; that is, as long as it was offered to all three. (In fact, I have thought since the initial hearing that Williams was the one of the three who should not have been charged, considering he is a volunteer assistant and not a Hamilton County Department of Education employee.) Nayadley was quick to take the offer, and if Pinkston believes this is a fair measure of justice, then I trust his judgment.

There is a tremendous amount of healing that has to happen in our public school system in general and at Ooltewah in particular. And this may be a baby step in that long process, but it's a step nonetheless.

Still, let's be very clear, a lack of a criminal record for any or all of those who were in charge of watching out for the players on that trip in no way, shape or form can be confused with erasing the public's memory of this nightmare. Or their role in it.

The legal ruling has been issued for Nayadley, and the day will come for Montgomery and Williams, too.

A court of law, however, is different from the court of public opinion, and there will be more than a few - think tens of thousands - people watching to see how Nayadley and the others are handled by the school system.

Legally, they may not be found guilty of anything, but we all know there were huge, life-changing mistakes made in that cabin. And if the statements to police from the main perpetrator are to be believed, this has been going on for years in that program.

So now this issue and the lasting decisions about the key personnel involved fall to the leadership of the school system.

It's your time to step up to the mic, Dr. Kirk Kelly.

There were more than a few of us who were stunned and disappointed when Kelly was named interim superintendent. With the multitude of problems facing the system from the previous leadership core that had more problems than solutions, promoting from within seemed to be, at best, a curious solution.

Still, that's what five school board members voted to do, and whether we liked the decision or not, we all have to find ways to get on board with it. The state of our public schools is simply too important not to. Period.

And this is true whether your kid goes to Orchard Knob or Normal Park, whether your children go to public schools or private schools, and if you live downtown or just inside the county line.

A strong public school system is paramount for our area to continue the growth trajectory we have experienced over the last decade. It's really that simple.

So the professional fates of Nayadley, Montgomery and Williams, at least as coaches, soon will fall on Kelly's desk.

It's a difficult spot, to be sure. Or is it?

Amid communication failures and claims of "old-school' networking in the Hamilton County Department of Education that compounded the problems with the sexual assault case from the start, Kelly has a chance to reset the deck at Ooltewah.

Principal Jim Jarvis' role and his mistakes in the handling of this also need to be lumped into that discussion.

Kelly's decision is about safety, the confidence of the community and the future, and his voice should be heard quickly and decisively.

In fact, anything other than a strong statement from the top will only give more credence to those claims of a back-slapping, old-school crony network at Bonny Oaks.

You wanted this job, Dr. Kelly, and now you've got it.

The time has come to make the tough call and rebuild the Ooltewah nest.

Contact Jay Greeson at His "Right to the Point" column runs on A2 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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