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Rape of a basketball player, accusations of abuse and bullying tear apart a Tenn. high school

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith enters a school board meeting room before a short public meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. (Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

First they heard the screams.

Karl Williams, the assistant coach for the Ooltewah High School basketball team, hurried downstairs to the rooms where the 14 teenage players were staying for the duration of their four day tournament in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

There he found a 15-year-old freshman player covered in blood, urine and feces, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston told ESPN. Two sophomore players were holding the boy down, while a third teammate, a senior, shoved a pool cue up his rectum. The freshman was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to repair his bladder and colon, which had been ruptured by the cue. The three alleged assailants were arrested and charged with aggravated rape.

But coaches never reported the Dec. 21 incident to local authorities or child services, according to investigators.

And meanwhile, the basketball team continued to play.

In the month since, outrage about the rape at Ooltewah High, a public school in a well-to-do suburb of Chattanooga, has mushroomed into a scandal about bullying, abuse and officials who critics say turned a blind eye to both.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith asked for a buyout of his contract Thursday, according to the Associated Press, citing a desire to step down so his school district can move on from the controversy. The announcement came just hours after a judge ruled that the county district attorney can move forward with a criminal case against Williams, head coach Andre Montgomery and athletic director Allard Nayadley alleging that the men broke a Tennessee law by failing to report child abuse.

Williams and Montgomery were chaperones on the Gatlinburg trip, along with Montgomery’s wife. The men were in the cabin where the team was staying at the time of the alleged rape and they were in the basement where the incident occurred, according to court documents.

The three athletic officials were suspended without pay after charges were filed against them last week.

The criminal complaint against the athletic officials also alleges that three other freshman players were abused during the trip to Gatlinburg. All four were “subjected to assaultive behavior including but not limited to being struck with pool cues” as well as “apparent sexual assault,” it says.

People who knew the boy who was hospitalized told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he had told coaches that freshmen were being bullied before the Gatlinburg trip. It was after that report that the alleged hazing — which the victim described as “a “ritual for freshmen” that involved regular beatings in the locker room — allegedly escalated to assault.

The boy and his relatives are not being named because The Washington Post does not identify victims in sexual assault cases. Since they are under 18, the three alleged assailants will also not be named.

The three accused students — one of whom described the incident as “horseplay,” according to ESPN — were kicked off the basketball team shortly after the incident, but were not suspended from school until Dec. 30. Meanwhile, the basketball team played out the rest of the Gatlinburg tournament and other games heading into the new year.

But on Jan. 3, more than 120 Ooltewah High alumni sent a letter to Smith and other county school administrators demanding an investigation into the alleged rape and other reports of hazing.

“We want to know why these children were left in harm’s way, especially if bullying by the perpetrators was reported prior to the sexual assault,” it read. “How can the atmosphere on a high school sports team be so toxic as to lead to a potentially life-threatening sexual assault? Our concerns are not only for the victim but also for all of the current and previous students of Ooltewah schools.”

Meanwhile, the parents of the boy who had been hospitalized demanded that the basketball team stop playing in light of the allegations about abuse.

School board member Rhonda Thurman, who has been a vocal critic of the handling of the case, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press: “The message we’ve sent now is you can do anything you want and get away with it.”

“We had a young man almost die at the hands of his teammates and that seems pretty serious to me,” she continued. “It makes you think, what does a team have to do to get their season cancelled?”

Smith ultimately called off the rest of the season on Jan. 7, according to the Times Free Press.

But the controversy continued to grow.

At public forum held by the Hamilton County Board of Education last week, parents came forward with stories of bullying and abuse they say were ignored by school officials.

“You failed my child,” Tonya McBryar told Smith. “I cannot believe that you can stand here and tell all these parents to stand up to bullying.”

According to the Times Free Press and the the Chattanoogan, McBryar said that her son was beaten severely while on board a Ooltewah school bus four years ago. He has brain damage as a result, she said, and the family racked up more than $20,000 medical bills to help treat him. But when she filed a lawsuit against the school district for child abuse and neglect, McBryar said she lost.

Despite that experience, McBryar said she “never imagined” that something as bad as the alleged Gatlinburg assault could happen.

“I want answers,” she said. “I want results. And I want change.”

Another woman, April Elaster, told the school board she had been “to hell and back to try to get someone to listen” to her concerns about the assault of her son at school, according to the Times Free Press. And students testified that they are reluctant to talk about being bullied for fear it will only make the situation worse.

The Times Free Press reported last week that policies against hazing in Hamilton County schools are out of step with state law because they don’t include ways for students to report incidents anonymously. A family member of the boy who was hospitalized told the paper that an anonymous reporting system might have kept him from getting hurt.

Students told the Times Free Press that they’d brought the bullying issue up before, but nothing had come of it.

“There is not a culture of listening to students and using their voice,” said Akia Lewis, a junior at The Howard School in Chattanooga. “I think students have a lot to say. We can help.”

In a statement released along with news of the charges against the basketball coaches and athletic director, the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office said it is launching an investigation into “allegations of an ingrained culture of violence among the football and basketball teams at OHS reaching back several years.”

But students, school officials and even some parents of the basketball players who were abused push back against the notion that bullying is accepted or and that the coaches were at fault. For weeks after the incident, both basketball coaches remained in their positions. When the remainder of the basketball team’s season was cancelled, Smith said that the move should not be interpreted as a reflection on the coaching staff, while an attorney for Montgomery issued a statement asserting that “the issue affecting our community is not hazing or bullying” but instead “the unilateral decision of three individuals charged with a sexual offense,” according to the Associated Press.

When Montgomery was reassigned to a non-teaching role on January 12, Smith again said that the move was not intended as a punishment or penalty.

Two days later, Montgomery and the other athletic officials were charged with failure to report, and all three were suspended.

Kyle Duckett, a former Ooltewah High School football player, said at the school board forum last week that his coaches at Ooltewah High never condoned bullying.

“To be out on a witch-hunt to get people fired is just wrong,” he said of the charges against the three athletic officials, according to the Chattanoogan.

The mother of one of the four freshmen who was allegedly hazed also told the Chattanooga Times Free Press she doesn’t blame the boy’s coaches for what happened.

“The coaches wouldn’t have any reason to believe a child on their team would be that malicious,” she said. “I think they did the best they could.”

The 15-year-old who was hospitalized was released after 8 days.

“It was a horrific incident,” his relative told Chattanooga TV station WRCB. “… He has a long road to recovery.”