This story was updated at 4:42 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, with more information.
The Tennessee attorney general ordered a court to unseal last month a second confidential settlement paid on behalf of Hamilton County Schools in the 2015 Ooltewah rape case.
Hamilton County school board members finally learned in January of the $60,000 settlement of one of the 2015 Ooltewah High School rape victims, "Richard Roe", after years of pressure from state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Tennessee Open Records Counsel Lee Pope and the involvement of the attorney general.
Richard Roe was one of two then-minors who said older Ooltewah High School classmates attacked them and sexually assaulted them with pool cues during a December 2015 trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for a basketball tournament. He and another victim, "John Doe," filed civil lawsuits against the district in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court in 2016, and both settled before trial.
But their settlements were sealed, leaving school board members and the public in the dark about the actual amount.
Shortly after Doe's case settled in the fall of 2018, Gardenhire blasted the school district and its insurer, the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, for not disclosing the amounts.
School board members learned that Doe received $750,000 as part of a settlement in a civil lawsuit against the department of education in an email from school board attorney Scott Bennett in May 2019, but the Roe settlement had not been unsealed at the time.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery filed a motion on Jan. 2 calling for the court to unseal the dollar figure of the settlement between the school district, the insurer and Roe.
Gardenhire called the attorney general's motion "a major step for the state" at the time.
"This sets a huge precedent in the future for all these secret settlements that have gone on. No one is interested in unveiling what happened to those children or who they are," Gardenhire previously told the Times Free Press. "We are interested in how much the mistakes of the Hamilton County school system cost the taxpayers."
Slatery's motion was made on the understanding that "this request to lift the seal for this very limited purpose is not opposed either by counsel for the plaintiffs or the defendants," according to the Jan. 2 motion.
On Jan. 24, the motion was approved without opposition from any of the parties involved, according to court documents.
"The case, which took place in 2015, involves a very difficult time for everyone involved in the incident, Hamilton County Schools, and the entire community. The Hamilton County Board of Education and every individual in Hamilton County Schools are committed to the safety and well-being of all the students in our schools, and we work each day with that in mind," said Tim Hensley, spokesman for the school district, in a statement. "The board and the public have an interest in knowing how the claim was resolved, so the district welcomes the decision by Judge [Marie] Williams to lift the seal regarding the settlement."
The recent disclosure brings the total amount paid by the district's insurer, the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, to both victims to at least $810,000.
Gardenhire has said that the next step is unveiling the total cost of the cases — not just the settlements, but also the full cost of litigating the cases for more than two years. Unveiling the total cost of attorney fees for both the trust and Hamilton County Schools is important to know, he previously told the Times Free Press.
"That's coming next. That's important to know because that's part of the costs of the mistakes that were made," Gardenhire said. "This goes to the very heart of the credibility of our education system."
Hamilton County Schools and its attorney, Bennett, have always maintained that the district did not directly foot either bill — the insurer did — and the board had no say in voting on either settlement or any knowledge about the amounts until they were unsealed by the court. The trust, as the district's insurer, was in charge of the case and any settlements reached, district officials maintain.
Doe's settlement was unveiled in May after Pope got involved. In February 2019, he sent top trust officials a letter saying that out-of-court monetary settlements made by board insurers need to be disclosed to the public under Tennessee's open government laws. Pope said the trust is "most likely" a governmental entity or "functional equivalent of a government entity."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.