Sohn: Want to blame media for Ooltewah? Bring it on

Sohn: Want to blame media for Ooltewah? Bring it on

August 23rd, 2016 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

The exterior of Ooltewah High School photographed on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Staff file photo by Maura Friedman)

Photo by Maura Friedman /Times Free Press.

Why have a policy?

“Despite receiving training and education on bullying at OHS, many players did not recognize it as bullying at the time that it occurred. In hindsight, however, they stated that they believed that the behavior did constitute bullying.”

— Report of the external investigation

More Ooltewah rape case stories

Document: Ooltewah report

Document: Read the full external investigation into Ooltewah High School report

It is incomprehensible that Hamilton County Schools officials and members of the Board of Education would blame the media for the "culture of hazing" that a recent report found existed last year — and maybe several years prior — on the boys' basketball team at Ooltewah High School.

But that's exactly what folks involved told a board-hired investigator who was tasked with examining the school's culture and the effectiveness of the school district's bullying, hazing and sexual harassment policies in the aftermath of the pool-cue rape of a freshman player in December.

The rape, which occurred at the hands of three older players during a tournament trip to Gatlinburg, resulted in a 15-year-old boy needing hospitalization and emergency surgery. Three other boys also were raped that night — though they were physically uninjured.

Coaches and chaperones were upstairs in the Gatlinburg cabin when these assaults happened in the cabin basement. Initially, the incident was called "horseplay" by school officials and even a Gatlinburg police investigator. The Gatlinburg detective was called to action after the hospital, not the coaches, reported the injury. Never mind that the boy's screams finally led the adults to find him in a pool of blood. Despite the boy's obvious and serious injuries, the coaches had the team play four more games before public outrage resulted in the cancellation of the basketball season.

Think about this. Does it seem like horseplay to you? Does it seem that the school folks' reactions were business-as-usual — i.e., this is culture? This is the rule, not the exception?

And now, months later — after the coaches have resigned, after the principal was reassigned then took an extended leave, after the superintendent retired as the board toyed with either buying out his contract or firing him, after three of four board members up for re-election were ousted, after numerous entities conducted varying investigations — now it's all the media's fault?

Well, that's what board member and former educator David Testerman said Friday at the news conference when the most recent report was made public. He blamed the rape of the freshman on the "media and the influence of violence in our culture."

He wasn't alone.

Courtney Bullard, a Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams attorney hired by the board following the rape to conduct an independent investigation of the school's culture and of the district policies (the Office of Civil Rights requires an independent investigation after such an event) said as much in the last paragraph of her report.

Even as she wrote that she had found "a culture of hazing" at the school, she rightly praised the school itself for "more good than bad" happening within the school.

"Teachers I spoke to were dedicated to their profession and students and had profound loyalty to the school. Students also spoke very highly of their experience at OHS, including the students who were in Gatlinburg," she wrote.

She should have stopped there. Instead, she added: "Students and teachers alike felt that the media's depiction of the school was unfair and that the Gatlinburg incident was an isolated incident which was not an accurate reflection of the school or its athletics' program. My observations during my time there were consistent with these sentiments."

Folks, the media was not — repeat, not — in the locker rooms at Ooltewah that Bullard depicted (as described to her by players) when beatings known as the "freshmen rack" occurred:

"One player stated that the older players would lock or block both locker room doors before turning the lights off. Players stated that the purpose was to bring the freshmen onto the varsity team or "the big leagues." One player stated that they were "hit hard to the point you want to fight. [R]eports on frequency varied from once a week to three times a week "

The coach's office was next to the locker room, separated only by a wall. One player told Bullard that the coach walked in several times when the lights were off and told the team to knock it off. One player said they were disciplined by the coaches for "the rack" by being made to run laps that were called "suicides." Players reported they often spoke about "the rack" in front of coaches. There was so much "horseplay" in that locker room that a TV was broken and parents had to pay for damage.

Nor was the media in Gatlinburg when four boys were dunked in a hot tub and raped with a pool cue and felt shame and embarrassment in the name of hazing and "horseplay."

And, yes, by the way, had that poor 15-year-old not suffered life-threatening injuries, the media — like the school system — would still be telling you how great things are at Ooltewah High School.

And your kid might be the next one in the room when the lights went out.

If the fact that you know to worry a little more about your children today is the media's fault, we'll happily own it.

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