CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — A packed courtroom heard the first public testimony Monday in a case that’s sent shock waves through a Tennessee community over accusations of rape during a boys’ basketball team trip.
And now a grand jury will be considering charges against three school officials of failing to report child abuse.
Prosecutors say the three school officials — head coach Andre Montgomery, assistant coach Karl Williams and athletic director Allard Nayadley — did not adequately notify the proper authorities of incidents that took place during a tournament trip by the Ooltewah High School boys’ basketball team in December.
Those charges — and allegations of aggravated rape and aggravated assault against three juveniles, ages 16 and 17 — stem from an injury during that trip that required a player to have emergency surgery.
After almost four hours of testimony during a preliminary hearing Monday for the school officials, Hamilton County Judge Robert Philyaw sent the misdemeanor charges against them to a grand jury.
The three pleaded not guilty to charges of failure to report child abuse and/or child sexual abuse and remained free without bond.
Descriptions of a hazing tradition
Monday’s testimony included the lead detective in the case recounting how players on the high school team described a hazing tradition that might have led to the injury and hospitalization of their teammate.
Players on the team told him that hazing and bullying of freshmen teammates was something they had all been through, Sevier County Detective Rodney Burns said.
“They had been subject to rough-housing, harassment (and) physical assaults all season, but it had happened at the school,” Burns testified. One suspect told him the older players would sometimes turn off the lights in the locker room and run around hitting the freshmen.
The team was traveling for a tournament when the alleged assault occurred in Sevier County.
Burns told the courtroom that during a stay at Gatlinburg cabin, four freshmen victims had had pool cues pressed up against their backsides, but in one case, a pool cue allegedly was pressed so hard that it went through the victim’s pants and into his anus.
The victim was taken to the hospital by the head coach and assistant coaches, and he eventually required emergency surgery for internal injuries.
Three juveniles, ages 16 and 17, now face aggravated rape and aggravated assault charges.
‘Something stupid that kids do’
Burns seemed to downplay rape charges against the players, saying “this was something stupid that kids do that shouldn’t have been done, but it wasn’t done for sexual gratification or really sexual in nature. … It was an assault, really. It just happened that the end result fit the definition of aggravated rape.”
Attorneys for the two coaches, Montgomery and Williams, argued that the coaches did file a police report at the hospital and had followed their reporting chain of command through the school district.
The attorney for Nayadley, who is also assistant principal at the school, argued that his client was in Gatlinburg with his family to watch his son play in the tournament and that he was not there in his capacity as Ooltewah athletic director or assistant principal. Nayadley was not staying at the cabin where the alleged assaults took place, but was staying 10 miles away with his wife and daughter, his attorney said.
Montgomery has been moved to another position within the school system where he will not interact with students during the investigation.
“I don’t want anyone to think he’s being punished or penalized. … If we find other reasons to address the coach, we will. I’ve also instructed him not to be on the campus of any of our schools until this investigation is over,” Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith said before charges were filed.
Smith canceled the basketball season on January 6, an action he said was not a reflection on the coaching staff but was necessary so investigators could do their job.
He said he regretted not publicly addressing the issue earlier.
Ooltewah is a suburb of Chattanooga about 130 miles southwest of Gatlinburg.
By Tessa Carletta