On Christmas Eve morning, I heard that a freshman Ooltewah High School basketball player had been the victim of a sexual attack.  The incident occurred while the team was in Gatlinburg for a holiday tournament, staying in a rental cabin.  The anonymous tipster said the perpetrators were three older teammates.  The incident was described in graphic detail.  As told, the story was shocking, and disgusting. 

Since those involved are 17 and under (a senior and two sophomores), news outlets have been unable to confirm exactly what happened, although some have reported rumors anyway.  Quoting people who are said to be family members, there are numerous accounts of how many students were injured, and what happened after the fact.

According to most of the stories, the attack involved a pool cue stick. According to the reports, at first some of the coaches, police, and/or medics did not believe the situation was that serious.  We were told one police officer dismissed it as “horseplay,” declining to arrest anyone.  We were also told that the victim was initially treated and released from a Sevierville hospital, before his condition worsened, requiring surgery and a week-long stay at UT Medical Center in Knoxville.  I was told by the principal of Ooltewah High School, that “it was a violation of team policy, which is being investigated, and would be dealt with.”  Certainly no alarms were set off by that statement.

Due to a combination of holidays and flooding, the story did not get a lot of attention through Christmas weekend.  Gatlinburg police were saying very little, as is standard policy in cases involving minors. I now know that at least one Hamilton County school official was dispatched to Gatlinburg in recent days to gather information, preparing for a School Board executive session meeting scheduled for Wednesday January 6 (it will be closed to the media and public). 

District 1 School Board member Rhonda Thurman has expressed her dissatisfaction with the school district administration’s somewhat muffled response to the controversy.  A former athlete herself, she told me she is “horrified” that a sexual assault took place “right under the noses” of teammates and coaches.  “Someone had to know this was going on! Why didn’t anyone stop it?” she said, not trying to hide her emotion and anger. Noting that the team has continued to play its regular schedule, she asked, “Why has their season not been cancelled?”

In a rapidly changing media world fueled by social media, neither Superintendent Rick Smith nor Ooltewah principal Jim Jarvis reacted quickly enough to satisfy many critics.  A credible argument can be made on their behalf: How do you respond, and comment on a case in which you don’t know all the facts?  No doubt, the rumors reported by some media outlets, and others posted on Facebook have been more widely viewed than anything official released by police, because they haven’t said much of anything.

You can choose to believe the aunts, the friends, the unnamed people who are said to be parents of team members, the people who say they used to be on the team, or whoever you like.  No doubt, some of them know what they’re talking about.  Yet the discrepancies in many stories prove some of them don’t.

In the meantime, the story has gone viral: facts, rumors, and speculation.  From New York to London to Paris and People magazine, Ooltewah is in the news.

Although news outlets, as a rule, protect the identity of rape victims, the young man’s name and photo are easily accessible on Facebook.  A woman identified as his aunt has established a GoFundMe page to help with expenses, and it has been seen by thousands.

A female teen, said to be an Ooltewah student, made a crude, sick joke about the attack; a sad reflection on the culture and attitudes often expressed on social media, largely unmonitored by adults.  It too, has gone viral.

Any assurances from the superintendent that the school district is on the case have come a few days late.  Vacations and holidays should be sacred, but extraordinary events require extraordinary actions.  No one expects the answers to every question, but they want to know the situation is being taken seriously.  They want to hear that steps are being taken to punish those responsible, to assure parents and students that Ooltewah High is safe, and that its athletics programs are properly supervised.  That may happen in the days to come, but with each passing day of “We’ll get to that later,” it only fuels more anger and fear.

Here are some questions that need to be answered:

  1. What is being done to ensure that such unsupervised incidents will not happen during future school athletic trips?
  2. Has such “hazing” or other violent incidents occurred previously in the Ooltewah athletics programs?  If so, what actions have been taken?
  3. After a teammate has been brutally injured and violated by three (now-dismissed) players, is it appropriate for a team to immediately resume its schedule, as if nothing had happened?
  4. Was this a one-time event, or has a culture of “out-of-control” athletes been tolerated at Ooltewah and other schools?
  5. Were other teammates present during the incident?  If so, did they participate in a non-physical way (taking video, etc.), or did they try to stop the attack?
  6. We know the 3 players have been dismissed from the team, and now face criminal charges.  Will any adults be held accountable for lack of supervision?

I’ll close with this. Ooltewah High’s reputation has suffered, and perhaps someone at the school bears a certain amount of responsibility.

But let’s get to the core issue: What has happened in our society, that children are allowed to grow up without learning the basics of acceptable human behavior? I don’t see horrible actions like this taught in schools.  Who is in charge at home? If teenagers think it’s okay to brutalize a friend (a teammate!), and then to laugh about it on social media forums, what have we come to?  Where are we going?

I am thankful for the good students who are excelling in school, setting good examples for their younger peers.  I’m glad they take education and citizenship seriously.  We will need them to protect us from those who have no respect for others.  Until adults in the home take control of their families, schools will have to deal with the consequences of neglect.

If you would like to donate to the Ooltewah HS Basketball player's medical bill click here

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