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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)

 

The confidential settlement of yet another federal civil lawsuit filed against Hamilton County Schools by a second victim in the 2015 Ooltewah High School sexual assault case has a local state legislator fuming over what he calls secrecy and a lack of public accountability.

"I'm pretty upset about the way the school systems continue to hide things from the public when they spend taxpayers' money to settle lawsuits where people did things that were inappropriate," Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said after the Times Free Press reported the second settlement last week.

He said that when the General Assembly convenes in January, he will work "to try to get legislation passed so that these kinds of things that are kept from the public" no longer are.

Instead of going to trial in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court in January, a settlement was filed and approved on Tuesday in state court with the second student, referred to as "Richard Roe" in court documents. The documents are sealed.

The first student, identified only as "John Doe," in September settled his case against the county, also for an undisclosed amount.

Both were among four then-minors who accused older classmates of attacking them with pool cues during a December 2015 trip to Gatlinburg for a basketball tournament. Left unsupervised by their coaches, Doe's classmates held him down and penetrated his rectum with a pool cue.

On Thursday, Gardenhire, a vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, blasted the school system, its attorneys and the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, which insures the county and apparently settled the case, during the final meeting of a legislative panel looking at exemptions to the state's Public Records Act.

"We need to decide who's at fault in this and who ought to be held accountable for what happened," Gardenhire said. "And what the [school board] attorney kept passing on was he said, 'We don't have any of those records responsive to this request for the settlement.' Well, that's not true, obviously."

He said officials then said "an insurance company settled it and they have all the information and we don't have it."

The county school system is insured through the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, a members-owned nonprofit entity created by school districts across the state in 1987 to provide comprehensive insurance coverage. A number of county governments also belong.

Chattanooga attorney Scott Bennett, who represents Hamilton County Schools, said neither he nor the school system knows how much money was paid to settle both lawsuits.

"The bottom line is that when you buy insurance, part of that insurance agreement is that if there is a claim you assign the control of that claim completely to your insurance company," Bennett said. "And that's really how Risk Management Trust operates in this situation. They get to direct and control the litigation and to make all of the decisions."

Bennett said as he understands it from Tennessee Risk Management Trust attorneys handling the litigation, "as the case developed and evolved and parties moved towards settlements, one of the discussions was confidentiality.

"Obviously if [county school] board dollars were being spent, it couldn't have been confidential because the board would have had to approve the settlements and that would have been public record," Bennett added.

But because the school board "assigned the defense of this case to the trust, the board has really had no say in this. And apart from having been told the matter was resolved, they really know nothing about this. And that's how insurance operates."

Bennett added that the board did not ratify or approve the Doe or Roe settlements.

After criticizing the school board and Tennessee Risk Management Trust in the committee, Gardenhire later told the Times Free Press that he intends to file a bill that would do several things.

"No. 1 is: No more secret settlements of lawsuits by public institutions," Gardenhire said. "I don't know if that will get anywhere but I'm going to introduce it. Because they're settling it with taxpayers' money. Once the lawsuit is settled, that ought to be public information."

As for the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, Gardenhire said protecting public entities is in the organization's charter. "So if they're protecting entities, in my opinion, they're a public entity themselves."

Gardenhire also said that for the Hamilton County "schools' attorney and school board and superintendent to say it's not really in our purview to release that information, well, yes it is. And they ought to release it."

He also called on current Superintendent Bryan Johnson, who took office after the Ooltewah scandal, to get the information and make it public.

"Now, Dr. Johnson wasn't here when that happened. But he's here now and he could very easily say let's divulge to the public what that settlement was," Gardenhire said.

After the board's quarterly meeting Thursday, Johnson said questions about the board's knowledge of the settlement were better directed to Bennett or the board itself.

Several of the board members said they did not know the amount of the settlements or the overall cost of litigating the lawsuits.

District 9 board member Steve Highlander, who represents Ooltewah, said that if it was "legal and ethical to know" the settlement amounts that he would like to know them.

The assault case helped bring about a number of changes, including the exit of then-Superintendent Rick Smith. Investigations had showed major gaps in the system's sexual harassment training and reporting under state and federal requirements.

Justin Gilbert, a Chattanooga attorney who helped represent the students, said in a statement Monday that "Teammates Roe and Doe have bright futures. They triumphed over personal tragedy, created Title IX law for others, and made the schoolhouse safer for future student athletes."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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