District attorney’s report: Cover-up, culture of hazing at Ooltewah High, other Hamilton County schools

Ooltewah High School
Ooltewah High School

CHATTANOOGA (WATE) – A report released by Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston following the Ooltewah High School rape case alleges a massive cover-up and “widespread, systemic problems going unaddressed at every level within Hamilton County’s public schools.”

The case began the week of December 20, 2015, when the Ooltewah High School varsity boys’ basketball team traveled to Sevier County for a basketball tournament. The report states that during the trip, three upperclassmen assaulted the team’s four freshmen players by isolating them, beating them with pool cues, and then using a pool cue to rape each boy. On December 22, one of the boys was critically injured and required emergency surgery to repair is colon and bladder.

The three upperclassmen were later found guilty of rape and/or aggravated assault. Pinkston’s report says the incident was not made public until the following week when the former stepfather of the injured teen contacted the news media. Through the media, family members of the freshmen players accused the older teammates of an ongoing pattern of assault committed under the guise of hazing.

Previous coverage: Ooltewah rape case

Problems regarding the trip to Sevier County

Pinkston found what the report classifies as a number of failures leading up to, during and following the trip. While Principal James Jarvis submitted a report to the school board seeking authorization for the trip, the report says the board never approved it. Jarvis testified under oath in court that the request was returned to him for modification. “Failure to make the trip without following the rules is unacceptable and the team should not have traveled,” read the report.

More online: Read the full report [PDF]

The report says from interviews conducted with players, parents and school officials, there were no male chaperones on the trip other than the two coaches. Head Coach Andre Montgomery, whose teaching certificate expired in 2012, brought along his wife and 12-year-old daughter. The players said they were left alone for hours while the adults “went grocery shopping,” leading the older players free reign to assault the younger ones.

Pinkston’s report says the attacks on the younger students took place over the course of three days, not all at the same time, and at least one attempt was made to warn a coach of what was happening. The Gatlinburg police report says when the most seriously injured boy needed medical attention, both coaches took him to the hospital. “In effect, the three attackers were left alone with their other three victims, as well as a 12-year-old girl and the remaining five players. The only adult in the cabin during this time was Coach Montgomery’s wife.

The report says Coach Montgomery and his wife tried desperately to cover up the incident. Pinkston says while the injured teen was at the hospital, Montgomery’s wife threw out his soiled clothing. The lead detective had to retrieve the evidence from a garbage can. Mrs. Montgomery also apparently cleaned the area where the attack took place, erasing evidence of the crime. When interviewed, the players said Coach Montgomery told them to be quiet about the incident, even with their parents.

“We can think of no acceptable reason for anyone associated with HCDE to ever actively encourage children to deliberately withhold information from their parents,” reads the report.

Pinkston says it also appears Coach Montgomery initially planned to return the victim to the cabin and allow him to continue to play in the tournament. An assistant prosecutor from the Sevier County District Attorney’s Office said he should return home, but as the victim was gathering his belongings to leave, he passed out and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Pinkston says research shows boys who are subjected to sexual violence often minimize their attacks, and each of the four freshmen downplayed the seriousness of what happened to them. He says the coaches were not properly trained to recognize the symptoms of sexual assault, particularly how males respond to it, and did not take an aggressive stance to protect the victims or ensure they received proper care.

Mandatory reporting failures

Andre Montgomery
Andre Montgomery

The report says Coach Montgomery “at no time” followed the legal reporting requirements for suspect or actual child abuse and child sexual abuse, despite having previously been a foster parent. Nor did volunteer coach Karl Williams or Assistant Principal Jesse Nayadley, according to the report. All three were eventually charged with failure to report child abuse.

A staff member of Leconte Medical Center was the one who eventually contact police – not anyone from Ooltewah High School or the Hamilton County school system. Despite this, Superintendent Rich Smith told reporters no adults did anything wrong regarding the trip.

The report also says there is a glaring lack of training regarding the duty to report child abuse. Pinkston says Nayadley had “no idea” what the requirements are for mandatory reporting and did not recall having ever attended any training sessions. Pinkston’s office says this is unacceptable for anyone employed by the school district, much less someone who has spent his career ans a coach and school administrator. Volunteer coach Karl Williams says he also was not required to attend any training on the subject.

Out of town response

(source: Hamilton County Schools)
(source: Hamilton County Schools)

Pinkston’s report says with a freshman player undergoing emergency surgery and three players accused of causing those injuries sent home, school officials should have immediately ended the trip. Instead, Nayadley decided the rest of the team should still play in the tournament the following morning. Principal Jarvis agreed and Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade “rubber-stamped” the plan.

The report says parents were not immediately notified of what happened either. One of the freshman players’ mothers didn’t find out about the attacks until the next morning when she called to find out if the team had won their game.

Pinkston says it doesn’t appear school administration grasped the gravity of the situation. A vague message sent up the chain of command, according to the report, did not accurately convey “the horror of the assaults or the serious nature of the crisis.”

“In fact, it took another day for Superintendent Smith to email the Board. He referenced an ‘incident’ during an out of town trip but provided no significant details,” reads the report.

Several media outlets contacted school officials the following week, but McDade wrote back that he was out of town and wouldn’t be able to answer any questions until he returned. Pinkston says he should have referred the media to someone who could have provided information. “The lack of response… within the central office fueled the public’s anger.” School officials also did not provide any counseling or support for the victims or other teammates.

Pinkston also says Superintendent Smith failed to take his duty of managing the crisis seriously. Smith eventually stepped down.

Climate at Ooltewah High School

Ooltewah Principal Jim Jarvis testifies at hearing in February 2016.
Ooltewah Principal Jim Jarvis testifies at hearing in February 2016.

Pinkston’s report says the victims spoke of a history of repeated assaults under the guide of hazing with little to no intervention from coaches. Coach Montgomery characterized the events as “horseplay” and denied any knowledge of criminal activity. Pinkston’s office says they find it “incredulous” that he did not know the extent and seriousness of the assaults.

The school was also notified by several parents in October 2015 of hazing going on within the basketball team, saying they went directly to Nyadley. During interviews, he denied receiving any hazing complaints, but that same afternoon faxed handwritten notes detailing said complaints.

Jarvis, Nayadley, Montgomery and Williams were removed from Ooltewah High, but Pinkston says there is no evidence the school or central office have made any effort to educate athletes on the harmfulness of hazing or change the culture.

The main suspect in the rape case said he was similarly assaulted when he was a freshman at a tournament in South Carolina. A former student athlete who attended the school from 2009 to 2012 said the abusive behavior was such an embedded part of the team’s culture that none of the kids realized what was happening was illegal. Nayadley was the head coach at the time and Montgomery was assistant coach. The former player said both were fully aware of what was going on and in some ways encouraged it.

Pinkston report also details a number of reports of hazing and assaultive behavior throughout the school’s athletic teams and extracurricular groups. It also details a “history of sexual abuse and other inappropriate behavior by teachers toward students.

Other schools

Pinkston initially planned on focusing his report on Ooltewah High and whether coaches and/or school administrators were criminally responsible for not supervising students or failing to report suspected abuse.

Pinkston’s office requested that the public contact them with any information about assaults, bullying or hazing at Ooltewah High School. Pinkston says the school board itself was not helpful.

“It should be noted Ooltewah High School’s administration was less than helpful to our investigators throughout this process, resulting in the District Attorney being forced to involve the School Board’s attorney to gain access to requested documents and make people available for interviews,” read the report.

The public response was so great and encompassing of the entire Hamilton County school district that Pinkston was forced to expand the scope of the report to include the entire school district.

One such complaint mentioned a boy with cerebral palsy who was suspended for hitting another student with a ball during a game of dodge ball. No one in the school system was able to explain why the boy was suspended for following the rules of dodge ball or why their son was put into such a physically challenging situation in the first place.

Another complaint mentioned an East Ridge High School teacher charged with statutory rape, but continued teaching. Yet another mentioned a bullying problem at Ooltewah Middle School.

Pinkston’s report says there is no accountability across the system and complaints often go ignored.

Recommendations

Pinkston says policies and penalties need to be strengthened and mandatory reporting training should be strengthened. The report says the school system needs to create a crisis plan and know how to follow it, as well as address the “assaultive culture” among athletes.

He also recommends addressing bullying and providing better support for children across the system, addressing systemic lack of accountability, and providing more aggressive oversight.

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