"Can Superintendent Rick Smith survive this scandal?" and other questions about Ooltewah
COMMENTARY: "I’ve been doing this radio/TV/internet news job for quite a while now. I’ve never received this many questions about any other school-related story."
I’ve been doing this radio/TV/internet news job for quite a while now. I’ve never received this many questions about any other school-related story. Here are some of the most frequent ones:
- Have you ever seen anything like this? No, not even close. I’ve seen superintendents hired and fired, political fights, and budget battles. But in terms of public outcry, this one tops them all.
- Will Ooltewah High principal Jim Jarvis survive this scandal? It depends on what you mean by “survive.” He could certainly retire, or resign. If most of the allegations about Ooltewah’s supposed out-of-control culture turn out to be true, he may want to jump out of the Owls’ nest before he is pushed. Stories are running rampant about pampered athletes, bogus student hardship transfers, and a lack of support for teachers. If ever a school needed a reboot, it’s this one. We could call it “Ooltewah 2.0.”
- Why don’t you report the good things about Ooltewah High School? It isn’t for lack of trying. I know Ooltewah has amazing teachers and students. Evidently most of them are afraid to say anything right now, in public anyway. At the most recent School Board meeting, I responded to this question by saying, “Would you like to brag on Ooltewah for me?” The answer was, “No, but you need to find someone who will.” My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re among those who will.
- Will Superintendent Rick Smith survive this scandal? If you had asked me two weeks ago, I’d have said, “It would help if he would talk about it publicly.” Then, he did. Afterward, I would have said, “He realizes he should have spoken out sooner, and by admitting that, he has silenced many of his critics.” Now, after charges were filed against three Ooltewah staff members, I’m not so sure. It turns out that Smith’s public relations snafu may be the least of his problems. There’s increasing evidence that some community leaders and educators (Central Office employees, principals and teachers) are questioning Smith’s competence. Of course, the most important opinions belong to nine School Board members. Before Ooltewah, three of them never criticized Smith, three of them occasionally voiced concerns, and the other three were in the middle, but usually agreeable. After all, this is the same Rick Smith who was given a lengthy contract extension just six months ago, assuring him of $200,000 annually through July 2019. Not a single Board member voted “no.” (The vote was 8-0, with Dr. Greg Martin absent). Today, that would not be the case.
- If there is an exit strategy for Rick Smith, will it be orderly, or noisy? Smith has a lot of pride. I can’t see him going quietly, or cheaply. If “the powers that be” want him out badly enough, it will happen. Where the payout money would come from is unknown. Let’s face it: Smith has never been the city power structure’s guy. When he was campaigning for increased school funding last spring, holding 11 town meetings to share his vision, Hamilton County Commissioners offered no support, and Chattanooga business leaders sat on their hands. So if he exits the stage, more than a few movers and shakers will be saying, “I told you so.”
- How did he get into this mess? Smith has been blasted by his critics for surrounding himself with “good old boys.” His senior staff includes several former colleagues and co-workers, mostly male, some of whom had retired during previous administrations only to return to work for Smith. It is widely believed that few of them ever tell him “no.” Judging from his poor decisions in almost every aspect of this case, someone should have said, “NO!” while jumping up and down, waving their hands wildly. Smith’s inner circle may be experienced, but it needs to be widened to include more diversity, more women, and advisers who understand 2016-era communications skills. The “gag order” was a fiasco. Certainly it’s never wise to comment about an ongoing investigation, and the School Board attorney felt he was following the verbal advice of Sevier County authorities. But the fact there was never a true gag order issued just added to suspicions of a cover-up.
- Why has it been so hard to get information out of Sevier County, where the incident took place? Two reasons: first, it’s a police investigation involving teenagers. Second, as one court clerk told me Friday, “We’ve never dealt with anything like this before.” Same here.
- What do you think of the media’s reporting of this case? It’s a mixed bag. Most have been responsible, while being competitive. Still, I’ve seen many sloppy factual errors, perhaps due to being overly competitive. Some of the stories have relied on anonymous sources, and are riddled with misinformation. Unverified rumors, reported as fact, have been proven wrong. “The 3 players who are charged with rape played in a game the very next day.” Wrong. “Coach Montgomery has been transferred to an administrative role.” Wrong. Facebook, as always, has been the home of hearsay, second-hand stories, and exclamation points. We all want to know why the adults and teens made so many bad choices before, during and after the Gatlinburg incident. Until they respond publicly, or until authorities release accurate information, much of what you’re reading is speculation.
- Can anything good come from this? Yes. Hopefully the young man who was brutally assaulted and raped will fully recover, and should he choose to do so, become active in the anti-bullying movement. How powerful would that be? I’d love for someone to do a documentary on this story, and show it worldwide. It could be a rallying point for families who want to teach their children the right way to treat others. I also hope this awful incident will result in punishment and rehabilitation that will turn the lives around of those who committed the act, and will be a lesson in detecting and reporting such crimes for the adults who allowed it to happen. Finally, I hope it inspires conversation and positive change in homes and schools, inspiring children to speak up, and adults to use prevention techniques wisely. District 8 School Board member David Testerman told me, “This won’t die down until we commit to being the most safe, secure educational environment for all students. It may cost some money, but we have to ensure parents that their children will be safe, starting from the school bus to the classrooms. We have to be safest school system anywhere. Why shouldn’t we be? Aren’t we here for the children?”
- Will Ooltewah High survive, and thrive? YES. I’ve never discouraged anyone from sending their children to Ooltewah High, and I won’t start now. There is an impressive core of strong teachers, involved parents, and talented students. Some in the media have compared it to Penn State, because that makes an easy headline. Yes, there are similarities. They are two great schools with sex scandals attached to their names. Penn State is becoming great again, and so will Ooltewah. Some new faces are needed. Conversations are taking place about the next chapter of Ooltewah High, and who will lead it. I believe a leader will emerge who will revitalize the school and unite the community. A school should be a source of pride, and in the very near future, Ooltewah will be better than ever. The community will make it so.
Anchor David Carroll has been with WRCB-TV since 1987 and anchors 5:00 and 6:00 newscasts. He covers School Patrol stories and blogs for WRCBtv.com. Click to read more from our "Thinking Out Loud" section.