Hamilton County school administrator had special concerns for accused student after sexual assault allegation

Staff photo by John Rawlston / The Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, seen in 2014, is located on Third Street near downtown Chattanooga.

In an email exchange, a Hamilton County school assistant principal who has been named in a lawsuit alleging she did not protect a 13-year-old female student from sexual assault said she was "especially concerned" about the incident's long-term effects on the young male alleged to be the perpetrator.

The emails, obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, document an exchange between the assistant principal of the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, Carmen Veller, and Hamilton County Detective Jason Maucere regarding police officials' investigation of the matter.

The federal lawsuit against Hamilton County Schools alleges a female student, 13 -- referred to as Jane Doe because she is a minor -- was repeatedly bullied, harassed and sexually assaulted by a male student, also 13, referred to as Jim Doe.

The male student allegedly forced the girl to perform oral sex in the school's boiler room Dec. 9, 2021, and, according to the lawsuit, former Principal James Boles and Assistant Principal Veller did not take immediate action and failed to notify the female student's parents of the alleged assault.

When shown the email exchange and asked for comment, district spokesperson Steve Doremus referred the Times Free Press to an earlier statement about the incident.

"Hamilton County Schools is aware of a lawsuit filed concerning an incident last year at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences," Doremus said. "Our district works every day to support the education, safety and well-being of our students. As this matter involves pending litigation, we will have no additional comment at this time."

The Times Free Press contacted Veller about the emails and received no response.

On Jan. 12, the female student reported the incident to her homeroom teacher Kalani Cannon who asked her to write down what happened. The statement was given to Veller, who took no immediate action, according to the lawsuit.

After reviewing surveillance video footage showing the two students entering the boiler room, Veller called the Tennessee Department of Children's Services child abuse hotline Jan. 14 to report the incident.

Five days later, the female student was called to meet with Boles and Veller who "both suggested that as a woman Jane Doe should consider the impact her complaint was having on Jim Doe," according to the lawsuit.

The following day, Veller emailed the detective camera footage of the students walking into the boiler room.

"The (female student) changed some of the details of her story on (Jan. 14) when she talked to Ms. Cannon again," Veller noted in bold letters.

According to the lawsuit, Veller admitted when she first learned of the incident through Cannon, she thought the female student was lying and only after reviewing the surveillance tapes did she believe it could possibly be true.

When asked several times by the female student's parents why they were not contacted immediately, Boles and Veller could not provide an answer, according to the lawsuit.

On Feb. 16 -- one month after Veller had become aware of the incident -- she wrote to the detective saying she had received repeated calls from the male student's mother about the investigation.

"(His mother) has called a few times to express her concerns about (his) interview, which to my understanding has not taken place," Veller wrote. "While I have been explicit that I won't talk about the investigation -- I only know what I shared anyway, I am struggling to help with her frustration as it's outside of my control. She is an incredibly empathetic and reasonable woman, however, the accusation is a serious one, and she is concerned that his side has not been shared and that the accusation/girl's testimony has been accepted as truth."

Veller goes on to write that she can "stay in her lane" regarding the case but has an obligation to all students and parents.

"I understand the need to be thorough, but I am concerned about the long-term effects of this incident on both young people -- but especially the one who has been accused and unheard. I have ensured her safety, but I cannot ensure his without the same care and dedication given to him."

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Veller further stated the female student had not kept quiet about the incident like she'd been asked.

"(Her) ongoing sharing of details with friends has made it increasingly difficult, especially when (the male student) has not shared his information," Veller wrote. "In addition, while (the female student) has been told by her parents and by administration to avoid talking about the investigation, she has not done so. (The male student) on the other hand, has avoided interacting with her and has been very careful to keep details to himself."

The Times Free Press is leaving the students' names out of this account because they are minors.

Between January and March, the time of the investigation, the male student was allowed to remain at school, but administrators changed his schedule. During this time, the female student experienced unrelenting bullying by classmates, according to the lawsuit, leading her to attempt suicide.

She still shared a lunch period with the male student where he "glared" at her, the lawsuit claims. Other classmates would shove, push and trip her in the hallway, and some would mimic oral sex and call her names like "slut" and "whore," according to the lawsuit.

In passing, the male student would announce "here's the liar of the school," according to the lawsuit.

The girl's parents asked Boles and Veller what they could do to protect their daughter. Boles said he would open a bully/harassment report and investigate, according to the lawsuit.

The male student was charged with the offense of child rape and kidnapping March 22 and was taken into custody.

Administrators issued a seven-day suspension that lasted March 22-28. The student was then allowed to begin attending the Washington Alternative Learning Center, which is part of Hamilton County Schools.

On March 23, Boles emailed the female student's father to inform him the bully/harassment investigation was closed because "there was not enough verifiable proof," according to the lawsuit.

The male student had a record of behavioral issues, including fighting, assaults, previous suspensions and previous reports of inappropriate touching of female students from 2020, according to a law enforcement case summary obtained by the Times Free Press.

In June, Boles was promoted to the role of executive director of access and school choice for the district. Veller stepped up as interim principal of the middle school while the district searched for Boles' replacement.

On Tuesday, Hamilton County Schools officials announced the appointment of Robert Alford as the new executive principal for the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. Veller remains the assistant principal of the middle school.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.