Final report: Ooltewah & HCDE "deficient" in hazing prevention training
The external investigation of the Ooltewah High School basketball rape case says the school had "a culture of hazing."
An outside attorney who conducted an external investigation of the Ooltewah High School basketball rape case says the school, and the Hamilton County Department of Education's efforts against hazing are "deficient."
At issue is a December incident in Gatlinburg in which four Ooltewah freshmen players were found to be victims of what was said to be a hazing incident, at the hands of three older teammates. One of the freshmen was seriously injured when an older student forced a pool cue stick in his rectum. The older students were dismissed from the team and the school, and face criminal charges in Sevier County in September.
READ MORE | Ooltewah HS Sexual Assault final report
Courtney Bullard of the Spears, Moore, Rebman and Williams law firm released the report Friday morning, concluding a seven-week investigation. She interviewed forty individuals, including Ooltewah administrators, teachers and students, as well as parents, guardians, and HCDE administrators.
Ms. Bullard was retained by the School Board to assess the climate of the school's basketball program reporting the reporting and addressing of bullying, hazing, and/or sexual harassment; to review policies and procedures to determine any possible deficiencies in communication; and to review training for student-athletes and Ooltewah athletics staffers to determine whether deficiencies exist with respect to bullying, hazing, and/or sexual harassment.
She stressed that her investigation "is not a criminal investigation, and it is not a substitute for the pending criminal investigations."
Ms. Bullard said HCDE and OHS employees fully cooperated with her requests for interviews. She said she was given free rein to walk the halls of the school, and to request interviews with students, parents and guardians. Although many of those consented to interviews, some did not. She said some potential interviewees were unhappy with the negative depiction of Ooltewah High in the media, others did not want to subject their children to an interview, and others believed the investigation was a "witch hunt." She said head basketball coach Andre Montgomery declined to be interviewed on the advice of his attorney because of pending criminal charges. Ultimately, fifteen basketball players agreed to participate in interviews.
OOLTEWAH'S CULTURE OF HAZING
Ms. Bullard said she found that a culture of hazing existed on the varsity basketball team prior to the Gatlinburg incident. She writes, "Nine players stated that "racking in" or the "freshman rack" occurred on the team prior to last December. It is described as upperclassmen turning off the lights in the locker room, grabbing a freshman and punching him with fists from the neck down, without the intention of causing injury. Students said it lasted 20 to 30 seconds, with the purpose to bring a freshman into the varsity, or "the big leagues."
Freshmen stated this happened more than once between November 22 and December 22, 2015, the date of the Gatlinburg incident. None of the students said they were physically injured in this activity, nor did they suffer academically or socially.
Students described Montgomery as a good coach, a mentor and a father figure. However, some said he behaved more as a friend than an authority figure. In addition, volunteer assistant coach Karl Williams was described as more of a disciplinarian. Athletic Director Jesse Nayadley, who had a son on the team, was described by administrators and staff as a good employee who enforced the rules when student-athletes did not meet standards.
Ms. Bullard concludes that while the coaches might not have been aware of hazing and bullying, they "were certainly aware of excessive horseplay." Although they handed out disciplinary measures that included physical activity, "those efforts were not effective," she said. "Other measures, such as benching a player or suspension, should have been considered," she said.
She said "racking" was the only account of misconduct that was identified prior to Gatlinburg, and she could find no evidence of sexual harassment prior to the December incident.
WHAT HAPPENED IN GATLINBURG?
According to Ms. Bullard's investigation, "On the evening of December 19, 2015, the four freshmen players were dunked in a hot tub by upperclassmen." The next day, an older student with the assistance of two other players, poked two freshmen on the rectum, over clothing, with a pool cue. There were no injuries. On December 21, another freshman got the same treatment.
But on December 22, things took a turn for the worse. "The fourth freshman sustained physical injuries that required hospitalization. During the early hours of December 23, the assailants were driven back to Chattanooga," she wrote. "That morning at 11:30, the team played its last game in the tournament. Immediately after the game, the team returned to Chattanooga."
She reports the "placement of the pool cue on the players' rectums was not an accident. Therefore, the assailants had the intent to bully, haze, and sexually harass the victims."
She did not find any evidence that HCDE or OHS administrators knew these incidents would occur. "It is unlikely there was any way for Mr. Montgomery to know that the behavior would escalate to such an extreme," she wrote.
THE OOLTEWAH COACHES' AND PRINCIPAL'S RESPONSE
Ms. Bullard found "Mr. Montgomery and the other adults present took immediate action to identify and eliminate the hostile environment and address its effects once on notice." She adds, "it is reasonable to assume that the conduct was sexual in nature, given the intended placement of the pool cue. The contact was unwanted, offensive, and had the purpose or effect of intimidation and embarrassment." She continues that the victims' responses could be characterized as "shame, anger, embarrassment, confusion, humiliation and disgust."
She finds that "Principal Jim Jarvis and Mr. Nayadley failed to take appropriate measures to address the incidents with the other freshmen because they did not notify their families, and allowed the team to play the next day."
She says Mr. Jarvis was the ultimate decision-maker on playing a game the morning after the incident occurred. "His decision largely was influenced by the reports he received from Mr. Nayadley (who) felt the players were ready to play and wanted to play." She adds that one player described the team as "sluggish." She said, "They were tired from a long and stressful evening, and their minds were with the injured victim." She said, "Mr. Jarvis rationalized that the remaining players should be punished for the conduct of three."
The report states Mr. Nayadley notified HCDE secondary operations director Steve Holmes that he would ensure the boys "were physically and mentally ready to play" the next morning's game. Each player interviewed, however, "said they were worn down and confused as to why they were playing." She concludes that by playing the game, Mr. Nayadley "ran the risk of sending a message to the freshmen players that the conduct was acceptable."
Ms. Bullard expressed disappointment at "the lack of response from OHS and HCDE after the Gatlinburg incident. "Someone should have reached out to these families to extend support," she writes. "There was no concerted, organized effort to reach out to families."
She adds that principal Jarvis "failed to understand the need to reach out because (he thought) there was only one victim that he was aware of."
Ms. Bullard also conducted extensive interviews with players and coaches involved in Ooltewah's football program, and "did not find that a culture of hazing, bullying, or sexual harassment existed in the program during the 2015-16 season."
She also praised HCDE for "significant efforts to combat bullying. The Olweus training is thorough, and tailored to meet each school's specific culture and climate."
She credited OHS for going "above and beyond HCDE mandate in efforts to combat bullying. OHS has provided robust bullying training for all of its teachers."
However, she found that "HCDE and OHS efforts towards training on hazing are deficient."
Overall, she called the atmosphere at OHS "positive," and said, "there certainly is more good than bad happening within the school." She said that students and teachers felt the media's depiction of the school was unfair, and that the Gatlinburg incident was "isolated." She said her observations "were consistent" with those sentiments.
She concluded by recommending HCDE continue to provide and mandate training regarding prohibited behavior, and the reporting of such behavior.
Jarvis, Nayadley, Montgomery, and Williams are no longer working in Hamilton County schools. Former Superintendent Rick Smith, who was strongly criticized for poor communication in the aftermath of the incident, resigned under pressure in March.
READ MORE | Continuing coverage of the Ooltewah assault