Mom alleges Ooltewah High School failed to protect her son after he was attacked in class

Mom alleges Ooltewah High School failed to protect her son after he was attacked in class

District officials are now reviewing how school handled the investigation into the assault

February 26th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Dawn Escobar, the mother of a former Ooltewah High School student, is alleging that Hamilton County Schools mishandled an investigation after her son was assaulted in his classroom during the school day last month.

After weeks of stress and frustrations, Escobar said her son is not returning to a Hamilton County public school and she wants the district to pay for an alternative since, she alleges, the district was unable to provide her son with a safe learning environment.

"The school brushed it under the rug," Escobar said. "That's been the theme throughout the entire nightmare."

On Jan. 16, Escobar's son was assaulted in a classroom by someone he did not know.

The student had entered the classroom and began to "hit him repeatedly in his face, head, back and shoulders" and ultimately knocked Escobar's son to the ground, where he continued to hit him, according to a police report filed by the school's resource officer.

The report states that the teacher and other students, who all witnessed the attack, helped to pull the boys apart.

The alleged attacker, 16, was charged with simple assault, and some students reported that he had been paid by another student to assault Escobar's son, according to the police report.

Escobar's son was hospitalized and suffered a concussion, blurred vision, pain in his neck and back — but the saga did not end there.

Since then, Escobar said her son has continued to receive threats and she has pleaded with school administrators to help her keep her son safe.

"I am beyond concerned for the future well being of my son," Escobar wrote in an email to Angela Cass, principal at Ooltewah High, on Jan. 21. She described the threats her son was continuing to receive via text message and Snapchat from the attacker and two other boys, as well as her son's plans for how to avoid being cornered while at school. "Is it fair for my son to feel like this and go to school with this type of worry? The school told me last week there is basically no way they can guarantee his safety."

Cass replied to Escobar's email the next day, but since then, Escobar says she has not spoken to the principal, despite attempts to visit the school for an in-person meeting. Escobar was directed to one of the school's assistant principals, Cedric Seay, instead.

Requests for a detailed safety plan for her son as well as information about how the students involved in the incident were disciplined have also gone unanswered. She has also asked for proof of protection plans and no-contact plans to keep the boys connected to the assault away from her son.

Since then, she's reached out to John Tharp, executive director of the Harrison Bay Learning Community, to which Ooltewah High belongs; Karen Glenn, the district's Title IX coordinator, two school board members and even a local attorney, according records and emails.

The school resource officer did assure Escobar that he would keep an eye on her son, but upon his first day back at school after being out for a week due to his injuries, he was taunted by one of the boys involved in his attack in the school cafeteria. When he went to find the school resource officer, he found out the officer wasn't on duty that day.

Escobar said her son was left feeling vulnerable.

"I cannot willingly send my child back into a threatening situation and hope for the best," she wrote in a Feb. 4 email to school leaders.

Now, district leaders from the school system's central office are looking into the situation.

Chief of Schools Justin Robertson said the district was conducting an "after action review" of the situation and how school administrators handled it.

"We are looking at every aspect of this incident from the time of the incident to today," Robertson said. "We are going to look at every step we took, every encounter along the way to see where we have opportunities to do better. I am remaining in contact with the young man's mom to make sure she's getting answers to the questions that she asks and working with her to make sure we find a place that he feels safe."

Escobar said the school should have done more to ensure her child would be safe, or offered an alternative such as for him to take classes via Hamilton County Schools' online virtual school. She also feels that at least one of the students, who is on a hardship transfer to Ooltewah High, should be returned to his home school.

Escobar also wants the district to help pay her son's medical costs, which have reached more than $4,000. As of Monday, she did say the school district would be covering about $2,700. After a meeting with Robertson on Monday — more than five weeks after the initial assault — Escobar said the system is in the process of setting up a meeting between her and Superintendent Bryan Johnson.

But she says it's taken too long.

"I don't feel that the school handled it in the appropriate manner," she said." No teacher or administrator or assistant principal could have known this was going to happen or prevented it but they could have stood up and said this is what happened, rather than just pretend it didn't and brush it under the rug."

She believes there isn't a safe culture at Ooltewah High School, which was at the center of a brutal rape and assault perpetrated by several basketball players in an attack on a teammate during a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in December 2015. The scandal that ensued led to years of litigation and the ultimate resignation of then-Superintendent Rick Smith.

Escobar also felt that there was not an appropriate number of administrators or support staff equipped to handle such situations at the school. On Feb. 14, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office announced investigations into two other incidents at the school, including an alleged sexual assault and a drug overdose.

Escobar said she hopes she will be able to provide a private school that will offer a robust education for her son, who had hoped to complete the International Baccalaureate program at Ooltewah High, and that her story helps other parents and students come forward who have dealt with other incidents of bullying or harassment or who have felt that the district ignored their problems.

"I've done everything I was told to do, I have tried to go through all the right channels," she said. "No one can assure me my child will be safe in any Hamilton County public school."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.


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