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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
Hamilton County Schools administrators talked for the first time about helping the victims of the 2015 Ooltewah High School rape incident nearly four months after it happened, according to a batch of recently released emails.
By May 2, 2016, an investigator had interviewed several people to understand why some Ooltewah upperclassmen sexually assaulted four freshman basketball players with a pool cue in Gatlinburg, Tenn., in December 2015, with one student requiring emergency surgery after the pool cue perforated his colon. The investigator was weeks away from concluding that Ooltewah and school district hazing policies were "deficient."
But Jim Jarvis, Ooltewah's principal at the time, said he didn't realize there was more than one victim. And the Hamilton County Schools attorney, Scott Bennett, was so frustrated with the lack of outreach to the victims he told the investigator he was "about ready to shoot Jarvis in the head," according to the emails.
Bennett apologized Tuesday for that comment, saying he lost his patience dealing with "perhaps the worst crisis in recent history."
"Even so, I should not have expressed my exasperation the way that I did, even privately to another lawyer," Bennett said. "When I ran across this email months ago, I conveyed my apologies to Mr. Jarvis through his attorney."
Jarvis' attorney, Curtis Bowe, did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday.
The emails, filed Monday in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court, are now at the center of a civil case that two Ooltewah victims have brought against the Hamilton County Board of Education since 2016. The victims, identified as John Doe and Richard Roe, say the district showed "deliberate indifference" toward bullying before and after the 2015 incident. They want U.S. District Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice to rule in their favor before trial in September, according to a motion filed Monday.
Board attorneys made a similar request to Mattice shortly after U.S. Judge Travis McDonough recused himself from the case nearly two years into proceedings. They say coaches and administrators reacted appropriately and didn't know about bullying because students didn't tell them. Board attorneys haven't filed a response to Monday's emails yet.
According to the emails, investigator Courtney Bullard had been hearing a common complaint from many parents of the Gatlinburg, Tenn., victims in 2016: No school officials had called them to tell them anything. Bennett tried to address the issue April 29, 2016, in an email.
"The victims' parents complain that no one from HCDE has called to ask how the boys are doing," Bennett wrote. "No one has offered counseling or any other support. They have said that they feel forgotten in the mess over the central office. ... I think HCDE did offer counseling to the known victim. And I also think that counseling was offered to everyone at the school? Am I wrong?
"Regardless, please, someone, reach out to each one of the victims, ask how they are doing, and offer to pay counseling."
Jarvis replied Ooltewah had reached out to John Doe, the student who was raped and needed emergency surgery. But according to the emails, one thing didn't make sense.
"In your email you used the term 'victims,'" Jarvis wrote on May 2, 2016. "I have knowledge of only one victim."
Bennett replied one student suffered an aggravated rape and that "several freshman are said to have been hazed ... with a pool cue."
"Therein is my question -- setting aside the rape victim, what have we done to reach out to the other students/victims?" Bennett asked that same day. "To my knowledge, none of them have retained attorneys, so school officials are free to be as compassionate toward them as they ought to be."
Bennett added Ooltewah officials did not need to know the future of the basketball program to contact the victims.
Board attorneys could not comment Tuesday on what Hamilton County did to help the students. But according to the emails, Bennett copied members of the district's central office, including Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade, meaning somebody could have coordinated a response.
In the meantime, Jarvis said the incident wasn't on students' minds when they returned to school in 2016.
"The question, in my opinion, from the students that will be returning is when we do we get back to being student athletes?" Jarvis asked in an email. "The students have been ready to move on for some time. I am more than willing to reach out to our athletes, but I do not have the answers to the questions I predict they are going to ask."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfree press.com or <a href="tel:423-757-6347">423-757-6347</a>. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.