Full Statements By Supt. Rick Smith And Board Chairman Jonathan Welch On Ooltewah High Rape Case

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Here are the full statements by Supt. Rick Smith and School Board Chairman Jonathan Welch on the Ooltewah rape case in which three Ooltewah High basketball team members were charged with the aggravated rape of a 15-year-old teammate:

Supt. Smith said, "We are devastated by the events that occurred during an athletic field trip during the holidays.  Our administration is and will continue to cooperate with any and all investigative agencies concerning this matter.  Additionally, we are currently reviewing all procedures, policies, and expectations in the hope that nothing like this ever happens again.

"This tragedy has had a profound effect on all of our community, in particular the Ooltewah community.  We need to support Ooltewah High School knowing that this is not representative of the nearly 1600 students that attend that proud school.

"Because this is an ongoing investigation, I am extremely limited in what I can say or communicate publicly, but I do want everyone to know how heartbroken I am about this but intend to work diligently with my staff, our school board, and the community, to develop the kind of safeguards that will prevent this from ever happening again.

"I have been advised by Attorney Bennett that the Sevier County District Attorney’s Office and the Gatlinburg Police Department have expressed concern regarding the extent to which the press and social media have been speculating upon the incident.  Their concern is that there has been a significant amount of misinformation and erroneous reporting that threatens to compromise the completion of their investigation.  Since the Sevier County Juvenile Court has sealed the file and ordered those involved not to comment, law enforcement is not in a position to correct the public’s misperceptions.  Accordingly, they have asked the Hamilton County Board of Education to take whatever steps might be reasonable not to fuel the speculation.

"A great deal of the public speculation has centered around the operation of Ooltewah High School’s boys’ varsity basketball program.  Since this speculation is likely to continue until the investigation is concluded, and since this speculation could threaten the integrity of law enforcement’s investigation, I have decided to end the team’s 2015-2016 season." 

Chairman Welch said,

Board Chairman Jonathan Welch made the following statement:

"No one wants to be here tonight.  There is a good school, with wonderful students and teachers and a good community with wonderful families hurting.  I can only say I truly understand your frustration, hurt and anger and can only say it will get better. 

"While the public is looking for answers we won’t have any tonight.  This board does not have investigative powers and we do not have powers to discipline students or employees.  That power lies with the superintendent.

"We do however have a responsibility to the public.  A responsibility to see that the superintendent runs the school system in an effective manner, and that the system runs in a manner that instills confidence in the system.  The last two weeks that has not occurred.   Due to the ongoing investigation and the necessary deference to it the public has been left with the impression that we on this board seem to not be aware or not truly concerned of the serious nature of the events that occurred with the Ooltewah basketball team.  Let me be clear, I and I believe each of the board members here along with Superintendent Smith and all of our employees do not have the words to adequately describe the feelings we have toward this situation.  Tragic, horrific, unfathomable, none describe it. 

"The public feels that there is going to be a “cover up.”  Or worse that any discipline will only be taken out on a scapegoat and that any institutional problems may not be addressed as long as the “problem” goes away.

"The intense emotion of the last two weeks makes it difficult to address this lack of confidence in our system and its ability to effectively manage this situation.  That is why I welcome local law enforcement’s engagement to help assure the public that this will be properly investigated and not just “swept under the rug” as has been said in numerous email’s we have received. 

"Tonight is a first step.  And I believe only a first step.  I don’t know at this time what the next steps will be.  But I ask that law enforcement be allowed to do their jobs, and investigate.   We cannot supersede any law enforcement investigation.  But we can benefit from their investigation if we allow them the space to work.  If we act rashly though we can damage their ability to investigate. 

"There are many questions that need to be answered.  But some of the questions being asked cannot be answered until all investigations are complete.

 "At some point there will be questions for this board and I believe the most important one we will have to ask ourselves is what could have been done differently, or better.  That is the goal, simply to make it better and we take a very small step toward that tonight by beginning the conversation and acknowledging the frustration felt by the public and saying we feel it as well.

"Please, if you have anything you think this school system should know, please contact us or law enforcement.

"At this time at the request of law enforcement and due to the ongoing investigation I must ask that you refer all questions to our attorney, the District Attorney or the Sheriff’s Department. 

"As we have been told due to the ongoing investigation we will have no further public discussion and this meeting stands adjourned."

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