The Hamilton County school board met privately Tuesday night with Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston to discuss the ongoing criminal investigation into the alleged rape and assault of an Ooltewah High School freshman by three basketball teammates on Dec. 22.
The nine-member board, along with board attorney Scott Bennett, met with Pinkston for about 30 minutes to receive an update on the investigation. Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith was not present.
Ann Butterworth, assistant to the Tennessee Comptroller for Public Finance and Open Records Counsel, said state law allows the board to discuss pending litigation in private and receive a presentation from Pinkston about this case, as long as no deliberation toward a decision takes place.
Butterworth said Pinkston's "one-way presentation" was not a meeting and does not violate the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, which requires school boards to conduct business in public.
But Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, disagrees.
"I've not heard of any case that says a governing body can close a meeting so they can get a private presentation on a topic, particularly if the presentation is on something that they will need to make a decision about," Fisher wrote in an email. "And it certainly seems odd that a district attorney who won't answer questions for the public would talk about details of an ongoing investigation with the entire school board."
Fisher said it is clear the board can meet in a closed session with its attorney to get advice and ask questions, but not that they can meet with someone else's attorney.
Following the meeting, the board met for an additional hour with Bennett behind closed doors to receive information about potential lawsuits in the case.
Board members Jonathan Welch and Donna Horn agreed after the meeting it was helpful for the entire board to meet and receive the same information from both Pinkston and Bennett.
Last week, Pinkston filed charges against Ooltewah High School's head coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery, assistant coach Karl Williams and athletic director Allard "Jesse" Nayedley for failing to report child abuse or suspected child sexual abuse in connection with the case and the assault of three other players on the team.
The men are scheduled to appear in Hamilton County Juvenile Court on Thursday at 9 a.m.
Three juveniles are facing charges of aggravated rape and aggravated assault in Sevier County, Tenn., and are expected in court Jan. 26. The charges stem from a case involving a 15-year-old teammate, who was rushed to a hospital with injuries to his colon and bladder during the team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Officials involved in Hamilton County's investigation say it is likely the three boys will face additional charges in Hamilton County.
The school board is scheduled to meet Thursday at 5 p.m. in a regularly scheduled meeting.
Meanwhile Tuesday, concerned parents, teachers and community members met for a panel discussion at Ooltewah United Methodist Church to talk about topics related to the assault.
Panelists representing local organizations, including the Family Justice Center and the Children's Advocacy Center, gathered to talk about different aspects of bullying and what options are available to parents.
The title of the discussion — and the question on everyone's mind — was "How do I talk to my children about this?"
Parents asked what advice the experts had for when a child asked about rape or other uncomfortable sexual topics.
"The No. 1 way we can protect our kids is to talk about the issues that are going on," Shelley McGraw, executive director of the Family Justice Center, said. "They are looking to us as adults to respond and talk to them about what is going on."
Children have a wide variety of technological tools at their disposal that present a new set of challenges, the panelists said. Parents must be proactive in supervising who their children are talking to through social media and what is being discussed.
"There are a lot of individuals on the other side of the computer screen who may not be who they say they are," April Wilson, a case manager at the Partnership for Family, Children and Adults, said.
Lt. Sean Shepherd, head of the county's school resource officer program, said parents should pick up their children's phones to check in on their activity.
"It's not snooping; it's protecting your kids," he said.
Panelists also encouraged parents to discuss difficult topics with their children early on.
The reality is different now than it used to be, they said, and if children don't hear about taboo topics from parents, they will hear them from someone else.
Wilson highlighted the importance of continuing these conversations with confidence into adolescence because, "If you're hesitant, then they're hesitant."
"If you're not being honest and real with them, then you're one less person they're going to go to," she said.
At its core, the conversation revolved and ended with the assault of the Ooltewah basketball player. The event sparked a more general discussion of bullying in school, but the culture surrounding sports specifically is under fire.
"We have to have an honest conversation about the culture of sports," Wilson said. "We need strong men acting as role models, telling these athletes that these things are not OK."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and. Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731.