Mom speaks out: 'Ooltewah High did not protect my son'
(Note from David Carroll: The mother interviewed in this story asked that we not identify her last name, for privacy and safety reasons.)
Dawn is a single mom, devoted to her 9th-grade son. He’s an honor student, who was attending Ooltewah High on a hardship so he can enroll in the school’s International Baccalaureate program. He’s on the football team and the fishing team. Dawn said, “What happened to my son in a classroom, and what has taken place since that day should not happen to any child.”
On January 16, 2019, Dawn’s son was sitting at his desk in a classroom with other students. The teacher, a male, was present. Suddenly, two male students came barging in, neither of whom were members of the class. One of the students began striking Dawn’s son repeatedly. The police incident report describes a frightening scene. Witnesses reported “an unknown student entering the classroom, hitting (Dawn’s son) repeatedly in the face, head, and neck before being knocked to the floor.”
According to the report, the boy’s desk was knocked over, and the unknown student continued to hit him “throughout his body.” The teacher and other students pulled the unknown assailant off the victim. Witnesses reported desks were knocked over, students were screaming, and even another student was assaulted. Dawn’s son suffered a concussion and was taken to the hospital. He was diagnosed with blurred vision, numbness in his legs, and back pain. He was told not to attend school for at least a week.
“The school never called me about it,” she said. “My son was the one who let me know. I was the one who took him to the hospital with a concussion. They never called anybody, no ambulance, nothing.”
"CAN YOU PROTECT MY SON?"
When he did return to school, Dawn pleaded with school administrators to find ways to protect her son from three students in particular. One carried out the attack, another accompanied the attacker, and a third was making new threats. “The student who kept hitting my son was acting behalf of the boy who came into the classroom with him, who says he had it out for my son. I don’t know why.”
Dawn says the school’s principal was inaccessible, so an assistant principal handled her case. In her opinion, he hatched a plan that was unacceptable. He said Dawn’s son could leave his classes a few minutes early, to avoid contact with the boys in the hall, and he could eat lunch with teachers, to avoid contact in the cafeteria. Both these ideas were rejected by Dawn, saying that being singled out from other students would make her son even more of a target.
“I got the runaround”
Over the next four weeks, several meetings were scheduled and canceled, and she said, “I got the runaround between the school and the central office.” She felt the School Resource Officer was her only true ally. Dawn said, “He was the only one who treated this with any urgency.”
In the meantime, in a large school like Ooltewah, she determined her son would never be truly safe from the three students who were involved in the attack and the threats that followed. The school administrators told her they could not share any details of how the three students were being punished, or if they were still in school. When her son tried to return to the school eleven days after the attack, a friend sent a text informing him that one of the students “was back in school, and wants to fight you.” He was also told, “When you come back, you’ll need protection from _____.” Another of the three said if he had been the one who had beaten him in January, “he would be dead.” Dawn said, “He was openly bragging about it.”
There were rumors that one of the two students had who had barged into the classroom on January 16 had paid the other, to beat up Dawn’s son. That student denied the charge on social media, but wrote, “he got what he deserved, and everyone knew it would happen because he talks bad about everyone. And yes, he did go to the ER and he has a concussion.”
Two days after the attack, new threats emerged from a third student. Dawn said the assistant principal asked her, “Do you have this in writing?” She replied, “No I don’t.” She was asked the last name of the student making the new threats. Although the student has a common first name, she did not have his last name. She did, however, know what class he was in at that very moment. “We need his last name,” the assistant principal said, according to Dawn. “Otherwise there’s nothing we can do. I can just tell you that the boy who hit your son has been punished,” she was told.
Social media photographs were circulated showing the student holding what appeared to be a weapon, and posting photos of two of the school’s teachers, with obscene captions. Dawn tried to tell school officials that the student posting the photos and threats was dangerous, but she said she could never get a straight answer about the student’s status at school. (A woman who identifies herself as the student's mother said he was holding a paint pellet gun, and was not a threat to the student who was assaulted.)
The assistant principal promised he would follow up. She heard nothing for four days and called him back. She says she was told, “I still need a last name.” She said, “I had given him the student’s first name and told him where and what time he could be found, but apparently that wasn’t good enough. I gave up.” “They had four days to find him,” she said. No one took the time to even try.”
Trying to return
On January 28, her son’s first day back to school, she had hoped he might get some helpful treatment from school administrators. Instead, she said, “They would not even assist him in contacting teachers to help him catch up on lost work. They told him to take care of that himself, so that was one more item on his plate. On his first day back, one teacher gave him a test for which he was not prepared, even though he had asked the teacher for additional time.”
The assistant principal had told her the School Resource Officer would pay special attention to her son when he returned to school. Her son was told to report any threats or suspicious activity directly to the SRO. When he was threatened in the cafeteria on his first day back, he sought out the SRO, but the officer was not at school that day, “Dawn said. “There were no officers on campus. This was the atmosphere my son was going back to. No protection, no safety plan. None at all. He was on his own.”
When her son called in a panic, she told him to go to a safe place, like the office. She said she had hoped to speak to the principal when she arrived to pick up her son that day, “But I had to wait because another fight had broken out during lunch period.” She said she eventually got to speak to an assistant principal, who told her it was basically her son’s fault because he didn’t go directly to teachers after being threatened in the school cafeteria. However, she said, that isn’t what he had been told to do. “He had been instructed to find the SRO. It’s not he didn’t have enough to worry about already.” When asked if one SRO was sufficient to monitor Ooltewah’s 1,573 students, she said, “They need much more than that.”
She later went to the school system’s central office, and although no administrators were available to meet with her, she left a message for Dr. John Tharp, the recently appointed director of the Harrison Bay Learning Community, which includes Ooltewah. “I really thought they could take care of this at the school,” she said. “I had no idea I would be driving all over the county to get someone to hear me.”
She said when Tharp responded, he told her that what had happened to her son would not be tolerated, and referred her back to the school. “There was no way I was sending him back in that environment,” she said. “He was afraid to even go the bathroom there. He had been mostly in bed for a week, suffering from headaches.”
WRCB requested an interview with Dr. Tharp, Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson, or Ooltewah High principal Angela Cass. A spokesperson instead designated Dr. Justin Robertson, chief schools officer for Hamilton County to be interviewed. Principal Cass's only public statement on the matter was a recorded phone message to parents on February 18, citing media reports of the assault, and the school's commitment to student safety.
Several weeks after the assault, Dr. Robertson was asked to investigate Ooltewah High's handling of the immediate aftermath of the incident. He is conducting an “after action review” of the case, in an effort to learn why communication broke down between the school and the family. He said, “I think that we have some areas we can clean up in what we call customer service, how we work with parents and communicate with parents.” He added, “Those students have been disciplined, and we'll continue our investigation. We're following up on every single issue that has been raised.” (A spokesman for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office would say only that a "criminal investigation" was underway, but could not comment further because of the age of the students involved.)
However, Dawn says Robertson should have been brought into the case earlier. During the month after the incident, she consulted an attorney, asking if there were any legal channels she could pursue against the school system for failing to protect her son. The attorney told her that battling the Hamilton County Department of Education was a tall order, and he recommended two paths of action: one was to contact her school board member, Dr. Steve Highlander, who represents District 9 where Ooltewah is located. Her other path was to contact the news media, but she said she would rather do that as a last resort.
She said Highlander was receptive and planned to share his concern with school system officials, but he also could not share any details about what was being done with the students who were involved in the assault and threats. He was being told that “it was being dealt with, and the students involved are being punished” she said, but the continuing threats made her feel otherwise.
Dawn decided to contact WRCB. “My son will not return to Ooltewah,” she said, “and that breaks my heart. He loves the classes he was taking and the teams he was on. But I’ve had to home school him, for now. It was my only choice this late in the year. Next year, I will have to find another school option for him. I will make it happen. I will do what I have to do.”
“This has been a great trauma for my son,” Dawn said. “He’s afraid to go to the mall or to even use his YMCA membership. We’re still not sure if or when these boys will do something else to him.”
Meanwhile, the bills are piling up for the treatment of her son’s injuries, already at more than four thousand dollars. “Again, I got the runaround from the school system. For documentation, first, they sent me to the school nurse. Then I was told to go to the risk management office. Everyone just keeps stalling.”
Dr. Robertson said the Hamilton County Department of Education is working hard to find placement for Dawn’s son that “will continue his path to graduation.” When asked if the school system had failed Dawn’s son, he said, “For the student, I would say we made mistakes, and that's hurtful. We don't want to say that a student doesn't feel comfortable at a Hamilton County school.”
Dawn says any action from HCDE may be too little, too late. She concluded, “I’ve done everything I was told to do, I have tried to go through all the right channels, but no one can assure me my child will be safe in any Hamilton County public school. Whenever I inquire about the students who attacked and threatened my son, they tell me they have to protect all students. The teacher who was in the classroom did a written statement, and I’m not even allowed to see it. I have not heard from a single guidance counselor. They told me there is no way they can guarantee his safety with the number of kids they have. I can’t put my only child in that kind of atmosphere again. I won’t do it.”
In December 2015, Ooltewah High made headlines during a basketball trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, when several players were involved in a rape and assault. That incident resulted in a complete change of administration, and ultimately led to the early retirement of Superintendent Rick Smith, who was widely criticized for his response to the incident.