CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — An investigation launched after a freshman high school player in Tennessee was attacked by three teammates at a holiday basketball tournament has revealed “widespread, systemic problems going unaddressed at every level” in his county’s public schools.
The county’s district attorney and sheriff’s office jointly investigated allegations of hazing and bullying on Ooltewah High School’s basketball team, and found problems on a much wider scale. Their report released Thursday says “permissive coaches” and “an apathetic administration” allowed a culture of bullying to spread around the county.
The investigation was launched in January, days after Gatlinburg police said three Ooltewah players assaulted a freshman teammate with a pool cue on Dec. 22. In juvenile court last month, one was convicted of aggravated rape and aggravated assault, and the other two were found guilty of aggravated assault.
“From the moment the basketball coaches drove the team out of town without Board approval, the system failed,” the report says.
“There was failure to adequately supervise the students, failure to recognize the significance of the horrific injuries suffered during a rape, failure to notify the victims’ parents, failure to provide a swift and appropriate response to the attacks, and failure to assure the public that proactive measures would be taken to address the root causes of these failures.”
Many of adults referred to in the report are no longer working in the county’s schools. Kirk Kelly, the interim superintendent, said in a statement that the board “will determine additional steps as we continue to improve our district.”
“We have already made significant changes in our district over the past six months, including new and stricter policies, stronger training for our employees about abuse reporting, and a more comprehensive approach to crisis management and communications,” Kelly said. “However, the report may provide us an additional opportunity to enhance our practices, provide better support and safety for all students moving forward.
“While this has been a difficult time for many, I believe we will be better positioned in the future by having taken the right training path, creating greater awareness of appropriate behavior and encouraging the sharing of timely information.”
According to the report, the team’s coach, Andre Montgomery, “attempted to grossly minimize the situation” and “attempted to cover up the crimes.” The report says Montgomery told players to keep quiet and not inform their parents.
Montgomery was indicted in May on four counts of failing to report child sexual abuse. His lawyer, Curtis Bowe, said Thursday he hadn’t seen the report and declined further comment.
The report says authorities widened their investigation after fielding complaints about other bullying at Ooltewah and other Hamilton County schools. They found that neither Ooltewah High officials nor central office administrators at Hamilton County acknowledged the seriousness of the Dec. 22 case.
And it says “there is no indication” that Rick Smith, the Hamilton County schools superintendent at the time, took his duty to manage the situation seriously. It says that Smith failed to communicate the gravity of the situation to School Board members or the public.
The report says Hamilton County Department of Education has a “glaring lack of training” on how to handle these types of incidents. And it states that Ooltewah athletes “continue to display bullying and threatening behavior.”
This report comes one month after a separate investigation commissioned by Hamilton County school officials said that Ooltewah had “a culture of hazing and bullying” even before the Dec. 22 attack.
Meanwhile, the victim filed suit on Sept. 9 against his former coach, the former vice principal and athletic director, the former principal and the county’s board of education, accusing them of knowingly ignoring the abuse of athletes.
The lawsuit alleges that Montgomery told players after the assault, “We’re a family and what goes on in the family stays in the family.”