Most of my reporting has been in the education field, and I’ve always encouraged school officials to be open and accessible. Thankfully, most of them are. Years ago, I covered a sexual assault that took place in a high school football press box during school hours. I was among several reporters sent to the school, where Superintendent Harry Reynolds was investigating. He was in a closed-door meeting when we arrived, so we waited outside for a while. When he emerged, we followed him to his car, asking for any information he could share. We hoped he would tell us that whoever was responsible would be punished, that students were safe, and that classes had resumed. Instead, he briskly walked past us, hands in the air, saying only “No comment,” as if he had just been arrested for grand theft. That’s what you saw on the news. His relationship with the media only went downhill from there.

I’ve seen some elected officials go for years without saying much at their public meetings. Rarely a comment, never a question. Once, I asked a school board member about a tight-lipped colleague, and was told, “I think he only shows up because we get a free meal afterward.” Sometimes, they have good reason to remain quiet. On one occasion, board members approved a generous bonus for the superintendent. It was a close vote, and some in the audience were outraged. The next day, I tracked down the board member who had cast the deciding vote, and he told me, on camera, that he didn’t know what he was voting for. He had intended to vote the other way. Maybe he should have asked some questions?

Recently, Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith has come under fire for being elusive during the recent Ooltewah High basketball team rape/assault investigation.  Granted, it happened over the holidays.  School was out, and he, along with many others were on vacation.  Other than a brief statement to one media outlet, saying the three arrested students were suspended from school, Smith did not return calls from the media. (To be fair, Smith has been quite open with me in recent years on several tough stories.  He has not responded to my calls about this one).

Meanwhile, the questions from the public were overflowing.  Fueled by social media, talk shows and news reports, people were outraged, and no wonder.  This was easily the most sordid, widely publicized incident in recent school district history.  A 15-year-old freshman, brutally attacked and violated by three older students (one of whom reportedly took video).  The story was picked up by media outlets around the world.  If ever there was a time for crisis management, this was it.  This was no budget battle, no textbook shortage, no leaky roof.  This was a safety issue that cut to the heart of every Hamilton County parent.  “Who’s looking after our children?” was asked repeatedly, with no one standing in front of Central Office to answer.

Ironically, two months ago, I stood in front of every Hamilton County school district principal and Central Office administrator, speaking on this very subject.  For years, I had requested an audience with this group to talk about crisis management.  The school district has not had a communications director in several years, and the most recent one did little to improve the situation.  One of her most notorious directives to principals was, “When interviewed by a reporter, how you look is more important than what you say.”  That may be the worst advice ever.

So I gladly accepted the invitation to discuss school/media relations.  I had done the same program for many area school districts, but not Hamilton.  I covered the basics: how to request news coverage, what to expect when a reporter calls, and of course how to deal with a crisis.  First and foremost, be responsive, be available, and tell the truth.  Certainly, there are many cases, like the Ooltewah story, when you can’t tell the media every detail.  You can, however assure the public that an investigation is underway. You can tell us that if mistakes were made, they won’t be repeated, and you can assure us our children are safe. A “no comment” will never do, and in this nonstop news cycle, even during the holidays, if something terrible has happened, you have to step up and face the cameras.

Thankfully, some of those in the audience paid attention that day, just like kids do in classrooms across Hamilton County.  Unfortunately, others may have been doodling or daydreaming.

As one School Board member said this week, expressing disappointment in the lack of response to the Ooltewah crisis, “If a house is on fire, someone must respond.  And our house was on fire.”

Well said.  As I've told many public officials: If you can’t stand the heat, why did you want to work in the kitchen?

From David Carroll's