“We knew immediately that this was a very serious matter. I know there are certain things that immediately are going to become law enforcement issues.”
POLL: Should officials have spoken out sooner on the Ooltewah case?
Twenty days after Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith learned a member of Ooltewah High School's basketball team was reportedly raped and assaulted by his teammates, Smith transferred the coach out of the school.
In a news conference Monday, Smith announced coach Andre Montgomery is now reassigned to a non-teaching position and not permitted on the campus of any school until detectives complete an investigation into what happened during the basketball team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., before Christmas.
"I don't want anyone to think [Montgomery] is being punished or penalized, at this point," Smith said. "He is being transferred at this point. If we find other reasons to address the coach, we will."
Smith said he decided to transfer Montgomery on Monday based on new information he had learned earlier in the day.
The Times Free Press reported Monday that just hours before the 15-year-old was assaulted on Dec. 22, several of Ooltewah's players were unsupervised in a parking lot verbally harassing players from Lebanon High School after losing to them 74-60 in the Smoky Mountain Classic basketball tournament.
Jim McDowell, Lebanon's head coach, said the Ooltewah team acted differently than other teams his school has played, describing some of their players as a "volatile situation."
Montgomery's attorney, Curtis Bowe III, did not return request for comment.
Monday's news conference was the first time Smith answered public questions since the assault. He said there are some things he wished he had handled differently over the past three weeks.
Smith said he should have immediately canceled the team's season on Dec. 23, the day he heard about the assault, and should have required the team to come home from the tournament in Gatlinburg. Instead, Smith canceled the season last Wednesday after the team had played four additional games.
Three former members of Ooltewah's basketball team are charged with aggravated assault and aggravated rape in the attack of a teammate. Records from Sevier County Juvenile Court state that two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old raped a 15-year-old freshman with a pool cue, causing extensive internal injuries that required surgery to repair. The three athletes facing charges were dismissed from the team and will not be allowed to return to the school, Smith has said.
"We knew immediately that this was a very serious matter," Smith said. "I know there are certain things that immediately are going to become law enforcement issues."
Smith also said he wished Monday's press conference had been held a week earlier.
His comments came less than 24-hours after Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Jonathan Welch released a statement also taking responsibility for his lack of communication, and offering a pledge to do better.
School Board member Steve Highlander, who represents the Ooltewah district, said after Monday's press conference he was glad Smith is finally answering the public's questions.
"I requested that he hold a meeting on Dec. 26," Highlander said. "I told him we need to assure the public that we're not going to let this go."
Highlander said he supports Smith's decision to transfer the coach. He said he prays school employees were unaware of any bullying taking place and that no one will be found negligent or aware that inappropriate behavior was taking place.
Smith said if investigators in Hamilton or Sevier counties find that any adult was negligent or didn't follow policy, the situation will be handled immediately.
He said once the criminal investigations are concluded, the school system will launch its own internal investigation to ensure any personnel issues are addressed. The superintendent said a change in the school's administration is a possibility.
"We need to do everything we can, every minute, to protect our children," Smith said, promising that his staff and the school board is working with him to prevent something like this from happening again.
Smith said the school board on Thursday will look at a policies that relate to bullying and overnight trips. Specifically, he said, the district's bullying and hazing policies need to be more clearly defined. He said the board also will look at expanding anti-bullying programs and ways to prevent situations like this in the future.
Smith acknowledged it takes more than a change in policies to prevent incidents like this from happening, adding that the staff and student body at Ooltewah High School underwent anti-bullying training prior to this assault.
At this point, Smith said he would not provide details about the criminal investigation because he had been advised not to by the school board attorney, Scott Bennett, and law enforcement officials. He said he has not received many updates from officials in Sevier County, where the three Ooltewah basketball players are facing criminal charges. Their next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 26 in Sevier County Juvenile Court.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond also spoke publicly about the criminal investigation at the news conference and at the local Pachyderm Club on Monday.
Hammond said there is currently no evidence leading him to believe any other juveniles or adults will be criminally charged in Hamilton County in this case. But he said the three teens could be tried as adults based on a decision from the Sevier County judge.
He said investigating this case has been a challenge for detectives because they have to navigate the jurisdiction of two counties, as well as the school board and superintendent. He said the juvenile court system also adds additional obstacles with tighter restrictions on what information can be publicly released.
But he assured those gathered at both meetings that his department is working with the Hamilton County District Attorney's office to fully investigate the case.
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston released a statement Monday stating investigators are working to determine if any criminal activity took place in Hamilton County, including whether any coaches or administrators hold "criminal responsibility for failure to supervise students," or failure to report abuse.
Pinkston reported he had asked Hammond's office to "refrain from public comment" during the investigation.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.
A previous version of this story stated that Smith said Montgomery had been reassigned to an administrative role in the school system. Hamilton County Schools has since clarified that Montgomery will be in a non-teaching role, not an administrative position.