The Ooltewah Situation
On December 19, 2015, the varsity basketball team from Ooltewah High School (OHS), part of the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE), a 79-school district in Chattanooga, Tennessee, traveled approximately 150 miles to Gatlinburg to participate in the Smoky Mountain Classic basketball tournament. During the course of the four-day tournament, three upperclassmen repeatedly assaulted the four freshmen members of the squad at times when the team was left unsupervised by its coaches in the cabin in which the squad was housed, initially with various forms of physical abuse such as being forcibly held under water in a hot tub, but soon escalating into sodomy being committed against each freshman with a pool cue. On the night of December 22, 2015, one of the victims was so severely injured that he required emergency surgery to repair his punctured colon and bladder.
The incident was not made public – including no steps being taken by any of the school administrators or athletic personnel who were aware of the situation to fulfill their mandatory reporting duties under the Tennessee Child Abuse Reporting Act and HCDE policy – until the following week, when family members of the victims contacted news media. The three attackers were eventually found guilty in Juvenile Court of charges ranging from aggravated assault to aggravated rape. The OHS athletic director was charged with failure to report child abuse and entered into a pretrial diversion agreement under which the charges would be dropped following completion of community service obligations and a child abuse reporting course. The head basketball coach was also charged with failure to report child abuse, but the case against him was dismissed based on a technical interpretation of state law that he was obligated only to report harm inflicted by a household or family member. Three OHS personnel at the time of the hazing incident – the principal, athletic director and head basketball coach – are no longer employed by the HCDE and, on June 19, 2017, filed a federal lawsuit against the district asserting that they had been mistreated during the post-event
As egregious as the facts are in the OHS situation, it is not an isolated incident in the broader context of hazing in school athletic programs nationwide. Dozens of similar acts of hazing are reported every year, typically resulting in criminal charges being filed against the direct perpetrators, additional criminal charges being lodged against school officials for violating state child abuse reporting laws, and civil suits against districts and personnel for failing to fulfill their duties under Title IX once they had knowledge that hazing was taking place or for negligence in failing to have proactively developed and implemented strategies that would have prevented hazing from occurring in the first place.
Only limitations of space prevent listing multiple such hazing situations from every state over the course of the last decade. In fact, sexually-oriented rituals have become such a commonplace component of hazing that a one-hour, prime-time episode of the ESPN series Outside the Lines, titled Hazing: The Hidden Horror, that originally aired on September 13, 2016 and which can now be viewed online , detailed 40 recent
incidents of hazing in high school sports involving sodomy using foreign objects against the victims.
The Investigations and Reports
On January 6, 2016, the HCDE superintendent canceled the remainder of the OHS basketball season. On March 17, 2016, the HCDE School Board hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation of the policies and procedures of the HCDE and OHS with regard to the prevention of hazing, sexual harassment and bullying. On August 4, 2016, a 24-page report was issued by the firm concluding that “a culture of hazing existed on the [OHS] varsity basketball team prior to the Gatlinburg incident” and setting forth 22 recommendations for the prevention of future incidents of hazing. The full report is available here.
In parallel to the HCDE external investigation, the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office conducted its own investigation of the district’s approach to preventing and handling charges of hazing and harassment at both OHS and its other schools. On September 19, 2016, a 23-page report was issued concluding that “there is a history of hazing and assaults within the OHS basketball team” and “there is a history of hazing and assaultive behavior by students throughout the school’s athletic teams and extracurricular groups.” The report also identified numerous systemic problems in the HCDE’s training of employees, supervision of students, and programs designed to prevent hazing and bullying, and it set forth nine categories of recommendations for remedying the deficiencies. The full report is available here.
The usefulness of these two reports is that they provide a blueprint for school districts, administrators and athletics personnel nationwide that are committed to fulfilling both their legal obligations and moral responsibilities to safeguard the welfare of students by proactively developing and implementing strong and effective hazing prevention strategies.
Recommendations in the HCDE’s Law Firm Report
The following are the suggestions proffered by Courtney H. Bullard, the attorney at Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams, P.C. (Chattanooga, TN) who conducted the investigation and wrote the report, to address systemic deficiencies regarding hazing in the HCDE. Because the purpose of examining these recommendations is not to focus on the Ooltewah incident, but rather to provide a roadmap for other school districts to use in addressing the issue of hazing, “HCDE” has been replaced throughout by the word “district.”
Training and Education
1. Provide and mandate training to all [district] and school administrators that includes:
2. Provide and mandate training and education to [district] staff and teachers regarding prohibited behavior. Consider providing this training to all school sites during teacher in-service at the beginning of the school year. This training includes:
3. Expand educational efforts on bullying and cyber-bullying for students to also include education on hazing and sex-and-gender-based harassment.
4. Provide bystander training for students and establish a student peer-based leadership program. Consider programs such as Step Up! to assist with these efforts.
[District] Title IX Obligations
5. Clarify the roles and responsibilities of [district administrators] and make any necessary changes to appropriately designate a Title IX coordinator for the [district].
6. Properly resource the Title IX coordinator to be able to implement policies, procedures and practices, which include:
7. Appropriately train any building administrator and/or school official designated for investigating matters involving sexual harassment to ensure adequate, reliable and impartial investigation of complaints. Training should be trauma-informed and include information regarding conducting an investigation during a pending criminal investigation.
8. Ensure that all forms of resolution to disciplinary matters implicating Title IX are clearly documented to demonstrate actions were taken to eliminate a hostile education environment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects on the complainant and the school community. Maintain appropriate complaint logs and records of all reports and steps taken to eliminate, prevent and address the effects of the prohibited conduct.
9. Train guidance counselors on available and comprehensive victim services to all students affected by sexual harassment or sexual violence. Consider designating an “on call” guidance counselor at each site to assist victims when needed.
10. Train all School Resource Officers on the [district’s] Title IX obligations.
11. Train the [district] school board on the [district’s] Title IX obligations.
12. Review disciplinary and grievance procedures to ensure they are consistent with the law and guidance. This may include modifications to the newly adopted policy, or the establishment of a complainant’s bill of rights, which includes:
13. Conduct a review of all disciplinary matters implicating Tìtle IX [in the previous five years]; create a log of those instances and how they were handled; and engage in any remedial efforts deemed necessary as a result of the review.
14. Conduct appropriate periodic climate surveys or assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of these measures.
15. Ensure that all athletics’ personnel, including volunteer coaches, are appropriately trained on an annual basis regarding Title IX obligations, hazing and bullying.
16. Create and maintain a zero tolerance culture for prohibited behavior that includes consistent enforcement and discipline within athletics at [all district schools].
17. Establish a registration process for volunteer coaches maintained in a centralized location that includes a system for volunteer coaches to acknowledge training on hazing, bullying and sex-and-gender-based harassment, school-sponsored overnight travel procedures and protocol, and mandatory reporting.
18. Create standards for volunteer coaches in line with those expected of stipend coaches.
19. Clarify the roles and responsibilities of athletic directors in handling reports of prohibited behavior within athletics.
20. Ensure accountability for failures to report by [district] employees.
21. Develop procedures and protocol for addressing incidents of prohibited behavior that occur on school-sponsored overnight trips. Identify decision-makers for notifying parents, returning home early and cancelling games.
22. Provide detailed periodic reports to the school board regarding the implementation of these recommendations.
Recommendations in the HC District Attorney’s Report
The following is a condensed version of the nine categories of suggestions offered by Neal Pinkston, the Hamilton County District Attorney, to address systemic deficiencies in the HCDE’s approach to dealing with hazing and bullying. School and athletics administrators should read the full-text version of the report for all of the details regarding the development and implementation of effective anti-hazing and anti-harassment strategies.
Strengthen policies and penalties
Earlier this year, the [district] voted to revise its policy on field trips. While the new version is an improvement, it is still not nearly as strong as it needs to be to ensure the safety of the children who attend public schools in [the district]. All related [district] policies should include specific language to ensure higher expectations from coaches/teachers, administration and students concerning hazing, bullying, chaperone/supervision rules, transportation rules, and penalties for failing to follow [district] policies.
Strengthen mandatory reporting training
Earlier this year, the [district] revised its policy on mandatory reporting of child abuse and child sexual abuse. This is an improvement but does not do nearly enough to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of the children entrusted to the system’s care. Simply requiring personnel to provide an electronic signature acknowledging they’ve read the policy is not good enough. All employees and volunteers must receive worthwhile training on how to recognize and report child abuse and child sexual abuse.
Create a crisis plan and know how to follow it
The [district’s] current policy on crisis management, including crisis communication, is too generic, which will produce the same result as not having a crisis plan. The plan needs to be expanded to ensure it covers a wide variety of potential emergencies – as many different scenarios as can be imagined – and then those system-wide protocols must be custom tailored for each individual school. Beyond simply creating a policy, teachers, coaches and staff must know these plans and be able to act upon them, which requires ongoing training and practice.
Address the assaultive culture among [district] athletes
Hazing and bullying among [district] athletes became the norm despite the system enacting a policy against these behaviors. Therefore, creating a stricter policy will likely not prove to be effective. And although the school’s administration and basketball coaching staff have been changed, that alone will not derail decades of school-endorsed violence. It is necessary for the Board to ensure resources for specialized training are devoted to [district] coaching staff and student-athletes. If necessary, counseling should be provided. We also encourage the athletic staff to implement positive alternatives to promote team building and to choose team leaders who are positive. These leaders should be held accountable for diffusing and preventing potential hazing.
Address bullying and provide better support for children across the system
While [the district] did set up an anonymous reporting system for bullying complaints, that does not offer students a sufficient level of support. It is obvious a significant number of teachers and staff throughout the system continue to downplay the detrimental impact of bullying. There is a critical need for training to improve staff awareness, knowing what signs to look for, how to intervene instead of condone, how to provide support and how to discipline when necessary.
Address systemic lack of accountability
[The district] should develop a group within the school system, similar to an internal affairs department, that has the duty to review potentially inappropriate activities of administrators, teachers and students and then have the ability to report their findings to the superintendent and the Board without fear of retribution from others.
Do truancy reporting the right way
Most importantly, [the district] must do a better job of timely reporting truant students to Juvenile Court. The earlier Juvenile Court is involved, the more effectively it can ensure the child’s underlying needs are addressed.
BOE must provide more aggressive oversight
[It] is the responsibility of every elected Board member to provide diligent oversight of the superintendent’s operation of the school system. While we do not question the commitment or dedication of any Board member, we do recognize a need for the Board as a whole to better understand and strengthen its responsibility to hold the system, in particular the superintendent, accountable for results.
Partner with the Children’s Advocacy Center
The school system is continually partnering with educational experts across the country with the goal of improving the way teachers instruct students. The same importance should be placed on keeping students safe. If a child is in a continual state of fear or stress, (s)he isn’t able to learn, no matter how well his/her teachers have been trained to teach. The Children’s Advocacy Center and its violence prevention partnership offers rich resources the system should be continually utilizing.
Lee Green is an attorney and Professor Emeritus at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, where for 30 years he taught courses in sports law, business law and constitutional law. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee. He may be contacted at Lee.Green@BakerU.Edu.