OOLTEWAH (WATE) – An independent report, commissioned by the Hamilton County Department of Education, found abuse had been going on at Ooltewah High School before a hazing incident during a tournament in Gatlinburg.
Courtney H. Bullard with Spears, Moore, Rebman and & Williams, P.C. spent seven weeks at Ooltewah High School interviewing students, teachers, administrators and parents. The report recommends a review of Ooltewah High School and Hamilton County Department of Education policies and procedures, particularly relating to hazing and Title IX obligations.
“It appears some of the OHS administrators had a ‘that doesn’t happen here’ approach to hazing and failed to see the value in proactive measure through education and training for staff, teacher and students,” said Bullard in the report. The investigation followed an incident on December 22, where a member of the Ooltewah High School boys basketball team, with the assistance of two other players, assaulted a freshman player with a pool cue while on a team trip to Gatlinburg.
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Later it was discovered that three other freshman were assaulted with a pool cue on the trip. However, the investigation found a culture of hazing existed on the varsity basketball team prior to the Gatlinburg incident.
During interviews, players described a practice called “racking in” where upperclassman turn off the lights in the locker room, grab a freshman player and punch him with fists from the neck down. Players said they were “racked in” one to three times per week during the four weeks before the Gatlinburg incident.
While freshman varsity basketball team players were the main target, the report found it also happened to some members of the freshman basketball team. The main assailants were three players, however there were reports of other upperclassman participating.
“Part of ‘racking in’ was the element of surprise leaving targeted players in a constant state of apprehension regarding when it may occur,” said Bullard in her report. “Incidents always involved several upperclassman… freshman accepted it as part of being on the team.”
Players said they did not tell adults about “racking in” because they didn’t want to “snitch.” Many players didn’t recognize the practice as bullying at the time it occurred, despite receiving training and education on bullying from Ooltewah High School. In hindsight, they told Bullard they believed the behavior did constitute bullying.
As to whether Ooltewah High School head basketball coach Andre Montgomery knew about “racking in,” Bullard’s report is inconclusive. At a minimum, she says he knew about excessive horseplay.
Bullard says students never told coaches or administrators about “racking in,” but based on accounts, it is difficult to believe that at a minimum Coach Montgomery was not aware of excessive horseplay occurring in the locker room.
Montgomery’s office was adjacent to the boys’ locker room, according to Bullard. One player told her he could hear players banging around in the locker room from outside the door. Another player said Montgomery walked in several times when the lights were off, turned them on and told the team to “knock it off.”
Players said they often spoke about “the rack” in front of coaches. One player said they were disciplined by Montgomery and volunteer assistant coach Karl Williams for “the rack” and had to run suicides, a drill where players sprint across a basketball course.
Students said Montgomery was a good coach and employee that had the best interests of the players at heart, buying players winner with his own money, helping with tournament costs and even driving players home from practice, However, some accounts said he behaved more as a friend than an authority figure.
“It is undisputed that Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Williams had the best interests of their players at heart and that they took measures to address the horseplay. These measures included an exercise referred to as running suicides, running during practice, push-ups, squats and other physical activity. Despite these efforts, racking in and horseplay continued. Therefore, those efforts were not effective at addressing the behavior. Thus, other measures, such as benching a player or suspension, should have been considered,” said Bullard in the report.
The report also found several hours at school with little to no adult supervision. School dismissed at 2:15 p.m, freshman practiced at 2:30 p.m., but JV and varsity teams didn’t start practice until 4 p.m. because of Williams’ work schedule. Bullard said from 2:30 to 4 p.m. players were in study hall with little supervision.
Trip to Gatlinburg
Thirteen players and three chaperones went to the tournament in Gatlinburg. Here’s an outline of what happened during the trip, according to Bullard’s investigation:
- December 19 – Team arrives, 4 players were dunked in a hot tub by upperclassman
- December 20 – Upperclassman, with the assistance of two other players, poked two freshman on teh rectum, over clothing with a pool cue. There were no injuries.
- December 21 – Another freshman was subjected to teh same treatment
- December 22 – A fourth subject was subjected to the same treatment and sustained physical injuries that required hospitalization
- December 23 – Three assailants were driven back to Chattanooga during the early hours of the morning. At 11:30 a.m. the team played the last game in the tournament, returning to Chattanooga immediately afterwords.
While the report found that Coach Montgomery failed to take appropriate measure to address excessive horseplay before the incidents, Bullard said it was unlikely there was any way for him to know the behavior would escalate to such an extreme. During her investigation she found Montgomery and the other adults took immediate action to eliminate the hostile environment and attempted to determine what happened.
In addition she said Montgomery promptly got medical care for the student that was injured and quickly notified the family. One police were involved, coaches followed directions, keeping the assailant and victim apart and driving the assailants back to Chattanooga. Ooltewah High School suspended all three assailants.
However, the report found that Ooltewah High School Principal Jim Jarvis and Ooltewah Athletic Director Allard “Jesse” Nayadley, who attended the tournament as a parent of one of the players, failed to take appropriate measure to address the effects of the incidents with the other three freshman once, by not notifying the families and allowing the team to play the next day. According to the report, Montgomery and Nayadley became aware the pool cue incidents had occurred to three other freshman early in the morning on December 23.
Bullard said Montgomery was with the injured boy in the hospital, leaving Nayadley as the most senior administrator in Gatlinburg to make the decision to notify the families. However, one of the families said they didn’t learn about what happened until after the team played in the tournament were 30 minutes outside Chattanooga on their way home. Another parent said she only learned about the incident when she called Williams to find out how the game went. A third mother said she didn’t learn about the incident until her son told her when they were back in Chattanooga.
Families were unable to make informed decisions about the well-being of their children, according the report. One mother said if she had known what had happened, she would have immediately gone to Gatlinburg and brought her son home.
“In allowing the team to play Jarvis rationalized that the remaining players should not be punished for the conduct of the three,” writes Bullard. However, she also notes that “had the team come back and had an investigation into the culture of the program, OHS would have discovered hazing and bullying were occurring in the locker room and additional upperclassmen were involved in hazing and bullying.”
Nayadley informed Steve Holmes at the central office that he would ensure the boys were physically and mentally ready to play, according to the report. He told Holmes the the boys warming up and they were “getting after it,” however according to the report each player said they were worn out and confused as to why they were playing.
After the incident
In the report, parents of players and the basketball team said they were frustrated at the lack of response from Ooltewah High School and Hamilton County Department of Education.
“While some of the boys were not subjected to hazing, bullying and/or sexual harassment, they did witness a traumatic event, and thereafter, their season was cancelled, which had a profound impact on them. Someone from OHS or HCDE should have reached out to these families to extend support,” writes Bullard.
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In the report, Bullard does note that one guidance counselor talked with a few boys that head a relationship with to let them know he was available if they needed to talk, but by in large there was no effort to reach out to families. Bennett said she reached out to Hamilton County School Attorney Scott Bennett who attempted to convince Principal Jarvis of the need to speak to families. She said she also spoke to Jarvis.
“Mr. Jarvis failed to understand the need to reach out to these families because ‘there was only one victim that he was aware of.” When I explained that many students have transferred, are in need of counseling services and so on, Mr. Jarvis continued to be unable to understand why parents should be contacted unless he had news for them regarding the upcoming basketball season,” said Bullard. “Ultimately efforts with Mr. Jarvis were exhausted, and the Title IX Coordinator began reaching out to the families.”
After the rape case, Nayadley resigned from Hamilton County Schools. A spokesperson for the school district told WTVC that former athletic director Jesse Nayadley did not give a reason for leaving.
Jarvis was removed from his position in May. Nayadley accepted a plea deal in order for his case to not go to court.
Ooltewah High School football program
In her report, Bullard said she also investigated the football program after several players aid “racking in” began when the football season ended and the three assailants began practicign with the basketball team. One person also told her that the practice happened to him on the football team.
However, Bullard’s findings were largely inconclusive because nobody would speak to her. She said two players declined to participate through attorneys, while other players were unwilling to participate.
“Ultimately, I deduced from these conversations that the unwillingness was a result of frustration over the negative depiction of OHS in the media, parents feeling confident that their son had not been subjected to similar conduct based on conversations with their son about the Gatlinburg incident, parents not wanting to subject their children to an interview, concern that the behavior of the assailants would be attributed to the football program, and a belief that the investigation v/as a ‘witch hunt.’ I did not receive any information indicating a fear of retaliation,” said Bullard.
Bullard said she did not find that a culture of hazing, bullying or sexual harassment existed in the football program during the 201 5-2016 football season. She said head football coach Mac Bryan keeps the freshman team seperate from teh JV and varsity football teams because he doesn’t believe freshman are mature enough physically or emotionally to practice or interact with upperclassman. Also, players cannot access locker room to get ready until it is unlocked by a football coach who is around to supervise.
“Players and coaches reported that Coach Bryan and his staff maintain a strict program, and players are held to a high standard. If a player gets in trouble at school, engages in horseplay, is tardy for practice, is reported as having behavior issues in the classroom, etc., they are subject to “afternoon delights” led by Coach Dunbar,” said Bullard.
In addition to more training, Bullard said Hamilton County Department of Education and Ooltwah High School has gone above and beyond to combat bullying. All together, Bullard said there was more positive than negative at the school.
“Students and teachers alike felt that the media’s depiction of the school was unfair and that the Gatlinburg incident was an isolated incident which was not an accurate reflection of the school or its athletics’ program. My observations during my time there were consistent with these sentiments,” writes Bullard.
Bullard recommended that the school system ensure all athletics personnel, including volunteer coaches are trained on an annual basis on Title IX obligations, hazing and bullying.