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OOLTEWAH ASSAULT

Former Ooltewah students say Supt. Smith aided in previous Ooltewah "cover-up"

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

When the news broke about the Ooltewah High basketball team rape/assault investigation, old memories began to stir for that school's alumni of the 1980s and 1990s. Stan Evans, a 20-year veteran teacher at Ooltewah Middle who also coached baseball at the high school, quietly resigned from his job in September 1998.  

Although no explanation was given at the time, more than a dozen men came forward later, stating in court documents that Evans had sexually molested them while they were students.

The nightmares they endured decades ago have no real connection to the December 2015 Gatlinburg incident, but they say several common threads exist in both cases: current Hamilton County school administrators, including Superintendent Rick Smith.

Smith, who asked School Board members for a contract buyout in January, had no direct involvement in the incidents.  

But Evans' former students, now mostly in their 40s, say Smith, who served as the district's middle school director and assistant superintendent in the late 1990s, was slow to respond to their concerns.  They also believe he was among several administrators who "wanted to sweep this under the rug." Smith did not return a message seeking comment. We have been unable to reach Evans, who has never commented publicly on the allegations.

Two of the men first came to WRCB in 2001, when they filed suit against Hamilton County Schools, alleging Evans of sexual misconduct of an authority figure with minors.  In an on-camera interview, Michael Mercer told us that in 1987, when he was 14, he was the victim of sexual harassment from Evans.  He said it continued for three years. A warrant was filed for Evans, who had relocated to Florida.  Mercer had attempted to track Evans down, hoping to inform Evans' neighbors and potential employers about his alleged past wrongdoings. Mercer told us he believed Evans had gotten off too easily in Hamilton County, being allowed to resign quietly, with no repercussions for his alleged misdoings.

READ MORE | Ooltewah Assault

Mercer told us he had been afraid to speak out about the incidents during his school days. He said, "It occurred to me a while back that I should tell someone, but I didn't want to do it when I was in school. I regret that now. I guess I got smart and decided to talk about it."  As the years went by, others began speaking out, even more so in the aftermath of the 2011 Penn State molestation scandal that resulted in the imprisonment of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and the forced retirement of head coach Joe Paterno. They told reporters the Penn State incident helped them come to terms with what had happened, and they had reached the age in which they were comfortable speaking out.

Mercer filed suit in 2001 along with Andy Ellington, also a former Ooltewah student.  The two said that by being allowed to resign, Stan Evans got off too light, and the school system never acknowledged any wrongdoing or negligence.  Dr. Jesse Register, who was superintendent at the time of Evans' resignation in 1998, had no comment at the time.  Smith reported directly to Register at the time of the resignation, and three years later when the lawsuits came to light.  

In the 2001 interview, Mercer told us he had originally filed a complaint against Evans in the fall of 1997.  It had been five years since he graduated high school, and he had decided it was time to take action.  An investigation by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office included claims that Evans had taken boys to his home, serving them alcohol, and forcing them to expose themselves.  However, by then, the statute of limitations prevented prosecution.  Mercer was told he had waited too long to speak up. If indeed Evans was still engaged in any alleged illegal behavior, more recent victims were not coming forward. 

Craig Brooks, another former Ooltewah student, contacted Eyewitness News a few days after the more recent Gatlinburg incident, which has resulted in assault and rape charges against three current students. He said, "One victim of Evans raised this issue to anyone who would listen, even when Evans was still teaching and coaching at Ooltewah. To this day, Rick Smith and the school district have never validated the tragedy that fell upon all these young men. They chose to put their head in the sand and protect their reputation, never acknowledging that anything occurred." Brooks said he did not know how many boys had been allegedly victimized by Evans, although he estimates it was "fifty-plus."

Brooks added, "Rick Smith was part of the leadership then and now.  I can't say for sure that denial and avoidance are a pattern for him.  But the lack of awareness and sympathy he exhibited with Evans' victims is a disgrace to leadership in all forms. He will not address this like a leader and protector of children.  He didn't then and he won't now."

Brooks said, "I was never victimized by Evans in any way.  I was fortunate. My family life was too stable to fit the profile he was seeking.  I was honored when my best friend became the first person to speak about what Evans was doing, and he reached out to me. I had to talk him out of suicide several times.  He had a difficult family life, and didn't communicate well at times.  That may be one reason why school officials didn't give him the attention and respect he deserved.  They tried to destroy him, but he's still standing.  He has my utmost respect."

Another former student who said he attended the school during Evans' tenure said, "We were very uneasy undressing in the locker room because of this. Me and my buddy we wore clothes under our clothes just so we didn't have to undress. That's really sad."  Still another former student wrote, "Coach Evans had a shower in his office and he would have us use that instead of the one in his locker room.  He would sit there and watch. No one knew what to say, or who to tell. Thanks to Michael Mercer and others who have been standing up, while the rest of us were too scared to say anything."

A student who attended the school in the early 1980s told Channel 3, "It started one day in gym class. Some of my athlete friends said that Evans wanted us to make a bet on the dodgeball game that day. The bet was simple: the loser had to do 50 jumping jacks in Evans’ office. With the door closed, naked, in front of the winning team and Evans. This later became what we would have to do after whiffle ball games, volleyball games, badminton games, and basketball games."

He continued, "I remember vividly the days that my team lost. In we went to Evans’ office. The door closes, the blinds are shut and we had to strip down totally naked and do fifty jumping jacks in the nude while Evans was sitting in his chair laughing at us and our classmates behind him laughing as well. This happened all year long. It bothered me for years that Evans was allowed to teach and do that with the students. At the time, I guess I thought it must be normal and all PE teachers were like that. Now I think back about the other teachers, and what did they know?"

On Facebook, a retired teacher wrote, "I taught at Ooltewah Middle School during this time. I mentioned the Stan Evans rumors to my principal, and at the end of that year, (Middle Schools Director) Rick Smith came to school and told me he was transferring me " for the good of the system." This is an eyewitness account. This is why I talk of the "good ole boys" and say I know this system well. The more recent Ooltewah High incident would never have come to light unless the boy was severely injured! I could not speak up like this if I were not retired now."

Another former teacher, who worked at Ooltewah Middle in the 1980s, told Eyewitness News that she too, regretted not doing more to address the rumors at the time. "There was a lot of talk about (Evans) at the time. There were so many rumors and I think a lot of us knew there was some truth to them.  We just didn't know what to do.  It was something nobody wanted to talk about back then.  I have tried to make up for that ever since."

The rumors included tales of multiple visits to Evans' home, as well as road trips to out-of-state sporting events that often included overnight stays. The students, some of whom came from broken homes, experienced emotions ranging from confusion to flattery.  For some, they were receiving attention they didn't get at home. Like many coaches, Evans represented a combination of father figure, leadership and disciplinarian.  At the age of 13, some victims say, they simply "go along," because they're too embarrassed to say anything.

One parent, whose children attended the school in the 1990s told Eyewitness News that she reported similar incidents to school administrators who told her, "If we believed every rumor we hear about the teachers, we wouldn't have any teachers left."

On WGOW's Sport Talk program in 2011, former student Andy Ellington said, "I know people are wondering how you could allow this to happen.  At that age, you just don't know what's wrong.  You don't have much to compare it to."

Nooga.com reported in 2011 that Mercer had finally tracked Evans down in 2003, obtaining a letter of apology which mentioned no specific acts of wrongdoing. He said he mailed it to then-Assistant Superintendent Smith, but received no response. Mercer told WGOW that he physically confronted Evans as well, hitting him and "kicking in the headlights on his car as he drove away."  He said he hoped Evans would file charges against him so he could tell a judge about the reason for his anger, and Evans' alleged past indiscretions, but Evans remained silent.

Another former student contacted Eyewitness News late last year.  He is now a parent at Ooltewah Middle School.  While walking through the hallways of the school with his child, he noticed several pictures in the hallway.  Some were in trophy cases, showing old football and baseball teams, with Coach Stan Evans featured prominently in each photo.  "Why do they continue to show his face in that school?" he asked.  When we contacted the school's current principal, she said she had never heard of Evans or the allegations.  She soon decided to take the pictures down, and put them in storage, out of public view.

Still, Brooks says Superintendent Smith's "denial and avoidance" in the recent Ooltewah case seem all too familiar. He said, "Children need to speak, and adults need to listen and act."

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