Hamilton County school board held meeting about Ooltewah rape case that violated Tennessee's Sunshine Law

Hamilton County school board held meeting about Ooltewah rape case that violated Tennessee's Sunshine Law

January 8th, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Superintendent of Schools Rick Smith stands and talks inside the Hamilton County School Board meeting room.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

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Read Superintendent Rick Smith's statement from Wednesday night

 

The majority of the public missed Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith's first extensive public remarks about the assault of an Ooltewah High School freshman.

They missed Smith's speech because he gave it Wednesday evening during an unannounced school board meeting, a violation of the Sunshine Law, which requires governing bodies to give public notice prior to meetings.

The Hamilton County School District sent notification of a public meeting scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., or immediately following the board's private executive session scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m.

But, instead of waiting for this public meeting, which more than 100 people attended hoping for answers, school board Chairman Jonathan Welch called a public meeting to order before the executive session at 5:30 p.m.

After roll was called, Smith began to read a statement to a small crowd gathered early to wait for the scheduled public meeting. As Smith finished his comments, Welch adjourned the meeting and the school board exited the room to have a closed meeting with its attorney.

Nearly an hour later, the board re-emerged to hold the much-anticipated public meeting, which disappointed many in the crowded room by lasting less than four minutes and leaving many questions unanswered about the alleged rape and assault of a 15-year-old by three of his basketball teammates during a trip to Gatlinburg before Christmas.

The three teenagers are charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault. The Times Free Press has not released their names because they are charged as juveniles.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, called the unannounced meeting where Smith read his remarks "a huge communications mistake."

In addition to the meeting being an unintentional violation of the Sunshine Law, Fisher said having the meeting at a time when most of the crowd had not arrived backfired on the school board.

"Government officials just really need to be especially careful during crisis times or times of public attention to get the facts out," Fisher said. She said it would have been helpful if Smith's statement were read again at the public meeting when the crowd was gathered and expecting answers.

Welch said he did not mean to violate the Sunshine Law, and since Smith made the decision to cancel the Ooltewah High School boy's basketball season before the meeting, he wanted Smith to make his announcement before the executive session. Welch said he hoped having Smith make the announcement before the executive session would prevent the public from thinking a deliberation on the matter was made during this private meeting.

School board attorney Scott Bennett declined to comment Thursday about the meeting.

The Times Free Press requested a copy of Smith's remarks from the meeting and was given an audio recording and transcript Thursday morning which is attached at the top of this story.

According to the transcript, Smith reassured the group gathered Wednesday that action is being taken by his staff as a result of the assault.

"We are currently reviewing all procedures, policies and expectations in the hope that nothing like this ever happens again," Smith said.

Citing the ongoing criminal investigation, Smith said he is limited in what he can say publicly, but he wants the public to know that work is being done to "develop the kind of safeguards that will prevent this from ever happening again."

Smith said he has been advised that there has been a significant amount of misinformation and erroneous reporting and public misperceptions in this case, and that law enforcement has asked that the school board not comment at this time.

"Since this speculation is likely to continue until the investigation is concluded, and since this speculation could threaten the integrity of law enforcement's investigation, I have decided to end [Ooltewah's] 2015-2016 season," Smith said.

He clarified the decision was not a reflection on the coaching staff, adding that law enforcement has not found evidence any of the adults chaperoning the team's trip to Gatlinburg acted inappropriately.

"We fully expect that we will identify ways that we can improve existing operations, and we look forward to making the Hamilton County Schools a better environment for all students," Smith said, concluding his comments.

NO 'GAG ORDER'

Welch told the group gathered during the scheduled public meeting Wednesday that the board could not talk about the case at the request of law enforcement.

Bennett said after the meeting he also advised the board in a private executive session not to discuss the case. He said any public comment could hurt the ongoing criminal investigations in both Sevier and Hamilton counties.

Bennett said he was told by the assistant district attorney in Sevier County that the judge ordered people not to talk about this case.

A court official in Sevier County said Thursday an official gag order has not been filed preventing Hamilton County school employees or school board members from discussing the case.

The court official said the judge has not told her to release an order prohibiting people from discussing the case, and said if an order is released, it's her understanding it will only prevent defendants in the case from talking.

Bennett clarified Thursday he has not spoken with the judge, nor has he seen an official order from the judge. But he did speak to law enforcement in Sevier County, who advised that school officials not discuss the case.

"Until I hear otherwise from the [assistant district attorney], I have to assume that the investigation is not complete and the judge has instructed everybody connected with this case not to say anything," Bennett said.

Regardless of who is restricted from talking in the judge's order, Bennett said he will still advise the school board to honor the instructions of law enforcement and not discuss the case.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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