Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Lawsuit: Huntsville meeting broke law


HUNTSVILLE — The Huntsville School District violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when its Board of Education held a special meeting regarding students accused of sexual assault, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Madison County Circuit Court.

The School Board met sometime in April or May to discuss disciplinary measures but didn’t notify the media or record the meeting, according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Joey McCutchen of Fort Smith on behalf of Benjamin Rightsell of Witter.

School Board meetings must be held in public with at least two hours of

advance notice given to the media that requested such notification, according to the lawsuit, citing Arkansas Code Annotated 25-19-106(b)(2).

Disciplinary matters can be discussed in executive session, but no decision made in executive session is legal unless the public body reconvenes and votes in public, according to Section (c)(4) of that same statute.

And all meetings must be recorded, wrote McCutchen, citing Section (d) of the statute.

Some players on the Huntsville junior high boys basketball team were accused of placing their “bare genitals in or on” the faces of younger boys who were being restrained, wrote McCutchen. One parent said some students were sexually assaulted in this manner 10 or more times, according to the suit. The practice was called “baptizing,” McCutchen wrote.

The school district received a formal complaint Feb. 25.

“A Title IX investigation was conducted by the Huntsville School District in response to the complaints,” McCutchen wrote. “According to the district’s investigative report, two players admitted to ‘baptizing’ victims and indicated that older students had previously performed the same act on them.”

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

Title IX “obligations” include “sex-based harassment, which encompasses sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

After the investigation by school administrators, a “Determination of responsibility” was completed in accordance with Title IX. It was included as an exhibit with McCutchen’s lawsuit.

The decision- making Huntsville school administrators in the Title IX investigation were High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Athletic Director Tom McCollough.

Several junior high basketball players said two students had “baptized” them or others in the locker room after games, according to the “Determination of responsibility.”

“The victims did not consent to the baptism whatsoever,” McCutchen said in a news release Thursday.

The two accused players admitted to their involvement in “baptizing” others, according to the “Determination of responsibility.”

The School Board expelled the two students for a year on the recommendation of school administrators. After an appeal, the School Board reduced the punishment for each boy to a one-semester expulsion, according to the lawsuit.

School administrators also recommended a five-day suspension for three other boys who reportedly restrained players during the assaults, but the School Board reversed the punishment of those three on appeal, according to the Madison County Record.

The students involved weren’t identified in the court filing.

“Based on information and belief, the press was not informed of the special meeting until after an appeal of the board’s decision was filed,” according to McCutchen’s court filing. “The appeal states that a board member had a conflict of interest because they are related to a student involved in the case. Based on information and belief, at least two school board members are related to students involved in the case. The appeal further states that the vote was done in private.”

School Board minutes from May 3 show two special meetings were held that night on whether students should be expelled. In each case, Enix recommended a one-year expulsion, according to the minutes. Audra Kimball, superintendent of the Huntsville School District, made a recommendation to concur with Enix’s recommendation, according to the minutes.

In each case, the board voted 3-1 to expel the students for one year, according to the minutes.

On May 19, the board held an appeals hearing and voted in favor of modifying the penalties by reducing the expulsion time, according to the lawsuit.

According to School Board minutes, the appeal hearing included four closed meetings as requested by four parents. That took almost four hours. Then the board went into executive session from 9:50 p.m. to 3:37 a.m. before reconvening and voting to lessen the punishment for the students.

Rightsell and McCutchen want the court to declare that the School Board violated the Freedom of Information Act and that future meetings will be held in compliance with the act. They also requested attorney’s fees and expenses.

“There is not a more serious matter than our children being sexually abused,” McCutchen said Thursday. “It’s unfathomable in a case involving child sexual abuse and conflicts of interest, the school leadership would not provide full and complete transparency.”

Madison County Sheriff Rick Evans said a criminal investigation is being conducted by his department.

According to the Madison County Record, School Board President Danny Thomas is the brother of Todd Thomas, who is the Huntsville police chief. Neither could be reached for comment Thursday.

Kimball responded to an email from the Arkansas Democrat- Gazette, saying she didn’t want to comment regarding the lawsuit.

Northwest Arkansas