A lawsuit filed by two teenagers that asserts a Knoxville cheer coach abused them and a gym manager failed to protect them has sent shock waves through an industry already reeling from similar accusations in another state.
The teen boys and their families, who are unnamed in the suit, filed the lawsuit against Premier Athletics in federal court this week, and theirs follows a similar lawsuit filed earlier this month against a South Carolina gym. Both the suits also name the cheer industry's biggest business and governing bodies.
The 22-year-old man accused of sexual abuse by the two teenage boys worked as a coach at Premier Athletics West Knoxville gym, and was a member of the University of Tennessee's cheer squad. Since the allegations surfaced, he has been fired by the gym and dropped from the cheer squad.
Knox News is not naming the man accused in the lawsuit because he has not been criminally charged, or the gym manager, a 40-year-old woman who is a named defendant in the lawsuit and reported the sexual abuse allegations to police.
Where the investigation stands
One of Premier Athletics' attorneys has detailed for Knox News the steps the West Knoxville gym manager took to report the abuse to police.
The first report to police came in June from the West Knoxville gym's manager, who told the Knox County Sheriff's Office that the man named in the suit had sent inappropriate photographs to a teenage boy who trained at the gym.
That accusation was investigated by a detective and closed after the victim decided not to pursue criminal charges, sheriff's office spokesperson.
A second accusation that the coach had engaged in sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old boy at the gym remains under investigation, a Knox County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman told Knox News on Wednesday. That boy, and a second athlete, are the main plaintiffs in the Tennessee lawsuit.
More:Knoxville cheer coach and gym are the subjects of a sexual abuse lawsuit: What we know
What Premier Athletics says
A Premier Athletics attorney said the gym first received a report of inappropriate photographs from an athlete on June 26 and "immediately" reported the claim to law enforcement.
A Knox County sheriff's detective came to Premier Athletics' corporate office on June 27 and took a report from the West Knoxville gym manager, according to attorney Chad Hatmaker.
Hatmaker said Premier Athletics fired the coach that day.
The gym then received information about the sexual abuse of another teenager − identified as John Doe 1 in the Tennessee lawsuit − on Sept. 18 and reported it to the Knox County Sheriff's Office as well, the spokesperson said, adding that a detective again came to the corporate office and took a report from the gym manager.
What the Knox County Sheriff's Office says
Knox News on Wednesday emailed questions to the Knox County Sheriff's Office about the timeline of when reports were made, by whom and how they were handled. The department previously confirmed it is investigating the case and a spokeswoman said the department would refer any potential charges to the Knox County District Attorney's Office.
The sheriff's office released to Knox News a June 27 report made by the West Knoxville gym manager. The gym manager reported that the man named in the lawsuit had sent a teenage boy who trained at the gym but is not part of the lawsuit inappropriate photos via Snapchat and also made an inappropriate comment. The department's major crimes division was notified and a referral was made to the state Department of Children's Services.
The June report was closed July 6 because the teenage boy's custodian chose not to pursue criminal charges, sheriff's office spokeswoman Lt. Heather Reyda said in an email to Knox News.
The sheriff's office also gave Knox News the Sept. 18 report made by Premier Athletics. That report from the gym manager included secondhand information about possible child abuse, and said the man named in the lawsuit had made inappropriate comments to a teenage boy − identified as John Doe 1 in the Tennessee lawsuit − who no longer attended the gym. The report noted the teenager had not come forward himself.
The sheriff's office declined to release to Knox News a third report made by John Doe 1 in September.
"We cannot answer any questions about nor redact the report," Reyda said. "It is an active investigation."
"Once the investigation is completed the findings will be turned over to District Attorney General (Charme) Allen for review," she said.
What University of Tennessee says about its investigation
The man named in the lawsuit also was a member of the University of Tennessee Spirit Squad and cheered at football games.
He was suspended from participation in all spirit activities on Sept. 16 and was dropped from the program Tuesday, UT Athletics spokesperson Tom Satkowiak confirmed in an email to Knox News.
In follow-up questions, the university declined to explain why the man accused in the lawsuit was suspended or why he was dropped from the squad. UT contends federal privacy laws prohibit it from discussing individual students.
"The university just received a copy of the (lawsuit) Tuesday," Satkowiak told Knox News.
"We are reviewing the allegations and the information currently available."
Here are our unanswered questions to UT Athletics:
Who told your team about the allegations?
On what date did they tell you about the allegations?
How did they tell you about the allegations?
Did you share the information with law enforcement?
If so, who shared it and who did they speak to in law enforcement?
Were there any mandatory reporting requirements?
Why did the university decide to remove the man accused in the lawsuit Tuesday instead of at the time of the suspension? What changed?
Who made the decision to suspend the man and to remove him from the spirit squad?
At midday Thursday, Knox News requested a copy of the university's contract with Premier Athletics referenced in the Tennessee lawsuit, and Satkowiak, the spokesperson, replied late Thursday afternoon that the university does not have a contract with the company. When asked Friday whether the university has any relationship with Premier Athletics or any of its affiliates, he said he didn't have any information beyond that there is no contract with Premier Athletics.
"While federal privacy laws prevent us from sharing individual student information, we can tell you some general information about process," Satkowiak said in an email to Knox News. "While USASF has no affiliation with intercollegiate athletics, including cheer, it will contact colleges if it puts someone who is also a student-athlete at a university on its restricted and ineligible list.
"Generally speaking, when the university is made aware of an allegation, we make every attempt to get information that would help us make informed decisions. That includes reaching out to law enforcement, should they be involved."
Liz Kellar covers public safety for Knox News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Becca Wright covers higher education for Knox News. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Where abuse investigations stand after teens sue Knoxville cheer coach