This story was updated at 5:11 p.m. with new information.
The Tennessee attorney general has ordered a court to unseal a confidential settlement paid on behalf of Hamilton County Schools in the 2015 Ooltewah rape case.
Hamilton County school board members finally learned the $750,000 settlement amount for one of the 2015 Ooltewah High School rape victims, "John Doe" in May 2019, after months of pressure from state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Tennessee Open Records Counsel Lee Pope.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery's most recent motion filed Thursday calls for the court to unseal the dollar figure of the settlement between Hamilton County Schools, its insurer — the Tennessee Risk Management Trust — and victim "Richard Roe." Other information and documents contained in the court file would remain sealed though, according to the motion.
Roe was one of the four then-minors who said they were attacked by older Ooltewah High School classmates during a December 2015 trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for a basketball tournament. During the incident, one of the freshmen was reportedly raped with a pool cue. Roe and another victim, 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.
The attorney general's most recent motion is a major step for the state, Gardenhire told the Times Free Press on Friday.
"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," he said. "We are interested in how much the mistakes of the Hamilton County school system cost the taxpayers."
Gardenhire doesn't expect there to be further pushback against unveiling the dollar amount.
Even Slatery's understanding is 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.
The school district also acknowledged the public interest in unveiling the settlement amount in a statement from its spokesperson Tim Hensley.
"The case involves a very difficult time for everyone involved in the incident, Ooltewah High, 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," Hensley said in an email. "While everyone understands why the plaintiffs might want the settlement information to remain confidential, the board and the public have an interest in knowing how the claim was resolved."
Gardenhire said the next step would be unveiling the total cost of these 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 the Hamilton County Schools is important to know, he said.
"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 attorney Scott Bennett has always argued that the district did not directly foot either bill; the insurer did. And Bennett previously said the board had no say in voting on Doe's settlement or any knowledge about the amount. The trust, as the district's insurer, was in charge of the case and any settlements reached, district officials maintain.
Gardenhire previously countered that Hamilton County pays a yearly premium to the insurer for its coverage and that he wanted to try to get legislation passed "so that these kinds of things are not kept from the public."
Doe's settlement was unveiled last year 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."
Last year, Bennett confirmed that he, along with the trust's attorney, Charles Purcell, both received a letter from the Attorney General's Office, sent on the senator's behalf, stating its position that the settlement agreement is a public record. This led to the eventual unveiling of the settlement to Hamilton County school board members and the media in May of last year.
Bennett could not be reached for comment Friday.
This is a developing story. Check back with the Times Free Press for updates.