CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – A Tennessee high school has called off the rest of its basketball season after three of its players were arrested on charges of raping a teammate in an apparent hazing incident.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said Wednesday he was taking this "very unusual step" with Ooltewah High School "so that the criminal justice system can work the way we expect."
Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Executive Director Bernard Childress said this is the first time he could remember a school canceling a season for disciplinary reasons.
Gatlinburg police said three teens face aggravated rape and aggravated assault charges in connection with injuries to a teammate, who underwent surgery after being assaulted while attending a basketball tournament. Tennessee law defines aggravated rape as a rape in which the defendant either has a weapon, causes bodily injury or is aided or abetted by another.
None of the teens has been named because they're all juveniles.
Smith said he canceled the rest of the season because he was concerned public speculation about the case "could threaten the integrity" of the investigation.
"This decision is not a reflection upon the coaching staff," Smith said. "Indeed, law enforcement officials have to date found no evidence any adult acted improperly. Likewise, this decision is not meant to punish the boys on the team who are innocent of any wrongdoing and simply want to play high school sports."
Smith spoke before the school board held a closed executive session. Board members then returned for a specially called meeting to discuss the issue, but they adjourned only a few minutes later after board chair Jonathan Welch offered brief remarks.
"There are many questions that need to be answered," Welch said. "Some of the questions unfortunately cannot be answered until all investigation is complete. At some point there will be questions for this board, and I believe the most important one we have to ask ourselves is what could have been done differently or better."
Scott Bennett, the Hamilton County School District's attorney, said the district will study its anti-hazing policy and make sure it's being communicated to students.
Bennett also said law enforcement officials in Hamilton County and Sevier County, where Gatlinburg is, told the school district not to conduct its own investigation. Bennett said school district officials also were advised not to comment. Bennett said Sevier County juvenile justice officials have told him the three arrested players wouldn't return to the school.
The Hamilton County district attorney's office and the sheriff's office are investigating whether an "ongoing pattern of assaults" may have been committed "under the guise of hazing." The district attorney's office said in its release this week that nobody has reported any criminal behavior in Hamilton County by anyone associated with the team thus far.
Two women who attended Wednesday's meeting said they are mothers of Ooltewah players. They said their sons had been beaten by teammates during the trip to Gatlinburg.
"I do want justice for the boy that was hospitalized and for my son and his other teammates who were assaulted," said Miika Montgomery, the mother of a player. "Do I think that (the arrested player) needs to go to jail? Yes, I do. Do I think the act was malicious? Yes, I do. I think it was very malicious and predatorial."
Authorities said the investigation is ongoing. Current charges pertain to one victim only.
Curtis Bowe, an attorney representing Ooltewah coach Andre Montgomery, issued a statement this week saying that "the issue affecting our community is not hazing or bullying" and instead "is the unilateral decision of three individuals charged with a sexual offense."
Miika Montgomery, who said she isn't related to Andre Montgomery, said she "didn't have any issues with the coach."
A group of more than 120 Ooltewah High School alumni have signed a letter requesting that an outside authority investigate the Gatlinburg incident. In the letter, they said that "we depend on you to create the right atmosphere for students. Instead of burying this incident of rape and assault, we ask that you address it head-on and as transparently as possible within the confines of the law."
"I actually was looking for a little more answers, a little more status of the investigation," said Amanda DeFriese, an Ooltewah alumna who signed the letter and attended the meeting. "I know they can't discuss law enforcement, but it would be nice to have at least more transparency."