In a Title IX Sexual Harassment/Sexual Assault investigation involving the Huntsville High School boys’ basketball program, the Huntsville School Board went against the recommended disciplinary measures in the case by lessening them for two students, finding them to be “too severe,” and throwing out the punishment for three other students, stating that the evidence did not support the determination.

The board’s action followed a months-long investigation involving members of the Huntsville High School Junior High boys’ basketball team and came after the Title IX “decision makers” – those charged with determining punishments – rendered their recommendations. The decision makers in the sexual harassment/assault investigation were High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Huntsville Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Huntsville School District Athletic Director Tom McCollough.

The Record has chosen not to name any of the students involved.

The disciplinary measures originally recommended the expulsion of two students for one year and out-of-school suspension for five days for three other students. After appeals were filed, the board conducted hearings, which were closed to the public – as requested by parents – and subsequently voted to modify and overturn the disciplinary recommendations. The board modified the expulsion of the two students to a semester and threw out the out-of-school suspensions for the other three students, resulting in no punishment being given to those students.

The initial Title IX investigation stemmed from allegations that some junior high boys’ basketball players would “baptize” other players. According to multiple reports, both written and verbal, voluntarily provided to The Record by multiple people, the act of “baptizing” occurred when several players restrained other teammates, mostly younger players, while other players undressed and then placed certain exposed private body parts in or on the restrained players’ faces. Two players admitted the accusations and also placed blame on a player now on the senior-high team for having conducted the same act to them a year prior. The investigation stated that two students admitted to both holding down teammates and placing certain exposed private body parts in or on the faces of players who were restrained.

According to the parent of one of the students, who was a victim, the incidents happened multiple times to several players. Some players were “baptized” more than 10 times. The parent spoke to The Record on the condition of anonymity.

At a special school board meeting on May 19 that lasted into the early morning hours of May 20, the school board heard testimony from students appealing the recommendations of decision makers. During the appeal hearings, the board was presented letters from victims of the sexual harassment/assault stating the damaging effects the actions of being “baptized” had on them.

Despite the evidence presented in the investigative report and letters from the victims, the school board determined that the evidence was not sufficient enough to uphold the punishment.

In reversing the out-of-school suspension of the three students, the board also threw out the recommendation that the students participate in Arkansas Athletic Association Conduct Training and Title IX Bullying and Sexual Harassment training, which were to be administered by Enix.

Huntsville School Board President Danny Thomas stated at the board meeting, “I move to modify the penalties as provided by the Determination of Responsibility as to appeal No. 1” for two students. “The penalty to be one semester because the board believes the discipline policies warrant the discipline stated in the motion.” All members present voted in favor, except school board member Lenora Riedel, who stated, “My opposition was due to the discrepancy with the handbook regulations on the punishments as stated.”

The board also modified the out-of-school suspensions and changed the punishment for those three students “because the board believed such responsibility has not been established from the evidence as was stated in the determination letter,” Thomas stated at the meeting. That motion passed unanimously.

In written documents provided to parents, the board stated “Due to the statements heard during the appeal process, the board upheld the determination but modified the determination insofar as the punishment to be meted out to the student is expulsion for one semester beginning school year 2021-2022.” The board stated that it found the punishment to be “too severe for the first offense.”

As to the students receiving out-of-school suspension for the alleged sexual harassment/assault, the board wrote that “Due to the complexity of the allegations and evidence presented the board felt it was not sufficient to uphold the determination.” Therefore, it rejected the determination and dismissed the complaint as to those students.

One student received in-school suspension for five days, but The Record is not aware of an appeal filed in that case.

Riedel was contacted by The Record for comment and to answer questions regarding her vote.

She responded via text, “I was advised by our school attorney not to issue any comments and any further questions should be handled through our district spokesperson, Superintendent Audra Kimball.”

When The Record asked for clarification on why she voted against modification of the two expulsions from one-year to one semester, she replied via text, “My opposition was not against modifying the expulsion, but was merely against the proposed length of punishment. My reasoning was based on the school’s handbook, which could’ve offered a lesser punishment based on the offense,” she wrote. “Due to student privacy rights and federal law, I cannot issue any further comment.”

When contacted for comment and to respond to several questions, Huntsville School District Superintendent Kimball said, “Because of student privacy rights and federal law, the district cannot comment.” Kimball later stated, “This Title IX is new to everyone and it’s the first Title IX case with our coordinator. We have worked with the state through the whole process,” Kimball said.

When contacted for comment, Thomas stated in a text that the school attorney had advised the board to have no comment and “to have one spokesperson for the district, which is Audra of course.”

McCollough did not respond to requests for comments.

According to the Final Investigation Report, which was voluntarily provided to The Record by several people, the behavior was alleged to have occurred between November 2020 and February 2021. However, according to other documents provided to The Record, the “baptizing” of players had been ongoing for a longer period.

“I got a call (by another parent) in February about 10 p.m. and was told my son had been a victim of basically sexual assault,” a parent told The Record. The parent who called had been to the school and had spoken to McCollough.

“I woke my son up and discussed it with him and he was scared he was in trouble. It happened to him and he was afraid he was in trouble,” a parent told The Record.

“He admitted everything that had happened,” and also provided a list of the players who had been involved, the parent stated.


Decision-Makers’
Recommendations


In rendering their Determination of Responsibility, the decision makers referred to an investigation conducted by St. Paul Principal Bruce Dunlap, Huntsville Senior High School Boys’ Basketball Coach Grant Myrick and Huntsville Junior High School Basketball Coach Kaleb Houston beginning Feb. 22 and concluding on March 10. That report was turned over to the decision makers.

Enix, Ferguson and McCollough used the investigation conducted by Dunlap, Myrick and Houston to find that basketball team members had accused other players of “baptizing” them or had witnessed the conduct happening to other athletes after home games.

According to a parent, after an initial complaint was filed, interviews were conducted by Tyler Trumbo, Houston, Dunlap, Myrick and school resource officer Monica Blair. The interviews took several days to complete.

The players were called into the interviews separately. The interviewers “called in the five perpetrators and the one little boy that they thought tattled,” a parent said. “My kid was scared to death to what was going to happen to him that day.”

According to a Title IX Final Investigation Report, which was provided to The Record, a report of alleged “sexual harassment” was received by the district’s Title IX coordinator’s office on Feb. 25, 2021.

The Final Investigative Report also states that the district’s lawyer, Charles Harwell, was notified as well as the school resource officer. Harwell was also present at the appeals hearing on May 19.

After the investigative report was complete, the school provided 10 days for parents and students to submit relevant questions for other parties or witnesses and additional time for the parties to respond to any new questions or responses before making a final determination of responsibility of a Title IX violation. After that time passed and the initial investigation was complete, the findings were turned over to the decision makers.

A final Determination of Responsibility in the Title IX investigation was sent from Enix to parents and guardians whose sons had been questioned or named in the reports. At this point the behavior was being called “Sexual Harassment/Assault Investigation.” Later in the process in the Determination of Responsibility, the school labeled the behavior as sexual harassment. According to a handbook posted on the district’s webpage, Title IX describes Sexual Assault as “An offense classified as a forcible or non-forcible sex offense under the uniform crime reporting system of the FBI,” which includes “touching the private body parts of another person for the purpose of sexual gratification without the consent of the victim.”

The Huntsville High School handbook states that “Actionable sexual harassment is generally established when an individual is exposed to a pattern of objectionable behavior or when a single, serious act is committed.” It lists examples such as “Unwelcome touching.” A Title IX handbook on the district website also lists fondling, “the touching of private body parts of another person for the purpose of sexual gratification without the consent of the victim,” as a sexual assault.

Some of the evidence in the investigation included text messages between players. One text message stated that “The freshman got fought doing it but they took it to another level. Caught*”

Several parents also sent text messages stating that their sons were not involved in the allegations. Included in the report was a text message received by Houston and his response, which stated that in his opinion the parent didn’t need an attorney. He also stated, “I’m not the decision maker so I can’t say who will be punished.”

Each basketball player was interviewed. When asked if they knew about “‘Baptizing in the locker Room,” out of the 53 players, 45 players said they were aware of it. When asked by the investigators if they did it to other players or see who did or who was holding down the players, some players responded who was responsible but most players stated that the lights were turned off. 

When asked if it had happened to them, most players responded “no” but others pointed to players who had been victims.

In testimony concerning how long the behavior had been ongoing, many players stated it had happened during a previous basketball season. Players stated that the behavior took place mostly after home basketball games, starting with the season-opening “Maroon and White” scrimmage and some away games. 

Most of the basketball players questioned recalled what players had held others down and what players had “baptized” other teammates. Some players also stated that the practice had been going on for more than one year and that players were “carrying traditions of when you got a big win.”

One player admitted to having it done to him. Other players stated that after the home games, “they would throw up a shoe and whoever it pointed to would get ‘baptized.’” A parent who spoke to The Record substantiated the process used by the boys when choosing the players to “baptize.” 

“They throw a shoe up and whomever it lands in front of was who got it, unless you were lucky enough to have already run out of the locker room. They knew it was coming,” the parent said. Players also stated that they were aware of the “baptizing,” and that it had been done to them.

The investigation also revealed that, at times, players paid to have it done to other players, while in other cases some players paid to not have it done to them.


10th grade investigation


According to the investigative reports received by The Record, the school is still conducting a Title IX sexual harassment/assault investigation into accusations against members of the senior high basketball team. However, according to the parent, no paperwork has been received in that investigation.

“I assume it was just swept under the rug because of the boys involved.” When told that the report states that the investigation is still ongoing, the parent stated, “I hope they are because part of that was worse than what went on with this year’s.” 

“I’ve heard nothing,” one parent said. “It’s like it’s dropped off. The school board is scared of the perpetrators’ parents.”

Kimball confirmed the 10th grade complaint is under investigation.


No contact from

the school


A parent speaking to The Record stated that no contact has been initiated from the school to the family of the victims. Even though the investigative report stated that counseling services were offered, one victim’s family said counseling services had not been offered. 

“I did speak to the principal at a baseball game (about another matter) and he asked me, he said, ‘We could get something,’ but nothing else was done.” Neither the athletic department nor the district’s Title IX Coordinator Tonja McCone has reached out to the victims or their families about counseling, a parent said. “They’re not worried about the victims, only the accused,” the parent said.

A parent also said McCollough has not reached out to her. 

“I’ve not heard from him, which really surprises me. He should be accountable.” 

According to the parent, none of the accused have missed any basketball practices due to the allegations against them and remain on the team.

“They are still playing. None of them missed a practice,” due to involvement in the incidents. Several boys have dropped out of the basketball program.

In a Summary of Relevant Evidence in the Final Investigative Report, the district, in stating whether or not a related criminal or juvenile investigation is ongoing, states that the “resource officer at the school is aware of the situation.” 

The summary of the evidence in the Determination of Responsibility states that the school district consulted with the school lawyer regarding whether a child abuse hotline report was necessary and also spoke to the school resource officer, but the report does not state whether or not the hotline was called.

According to a parent, “I was told the abuse hotline was never notified and they waited probably a month before they contacted the state to intervene.” In regard to the sheriff’s office being involved, the parent stated, “They should know because the school resource officer is their employee. But we were told if we file charges, we have to go through the city because it happened in the city. But sometimes, it was out of our county when it happened. It happened at away games,” the parent said.

When asked if a criminal investigation was being conducted, Madison County Sheriff Rick Evans said, “the school’s handling it.” He said that if a criminal complaint is filed, “we’ll get with the prosecutor and go from there.”


Appeals and conflict
of interest


After the disciplinary measures were announced, several parents and students filed appeals. None of the written appeals denied involvement in the incidents, nor did they deny that the incidents had happened. That does not appear to be in dispute. Rather, several of the written appeals used the same language and stated that the initial interviews that were conducted the week of Feb. 22 were done so without written notification, including sufficient details being provided to the parents and that the respondents were not given adequate time to prepare responses as indicated in the Huntsville High School Handbook.

The Record was notified of the special school board meeting concerning the appeals but not the “executive session” stated in one appeal, meaning if the meeting took place as stated in the appeal, the district has violated the Freedom of Information Act by not notifying the press or the public that a meeting by the board was taking place. By law, the board must notify the press of special meetings, but could go into executive session – if requested by a parent – after calling the meeting to order.

One appeal claimed that a board member with a close relation of one of the boys involved attended the hearing, saw all of the evidence and reports and “listened to the executive session.”

The appeal also stated that “When we arrived at the meeting we saw her and she stated she was not voting but she was allowed to hear the conversation and attend the voting that was done in private. We feel like a lot of questions couldn’t be asked and answered in front of her and it was awkward because she is a family member to (a student involved) and is also a friend of our family. … we feel like we couldn’t tell the whole story in front of her. We felt like the decision was biased because she was there.”


Accountability of school officials


According to a parent, no administration or faculty member has been held accountable for the actions of the students. 

“The coaches had to know. There’s no way the coaches didn’t know what was going on,” a parent said. One parent told The Record that “as soon as the game was over, they [the coaches] would hightail it to the coaches office.” 

“I think there are several [coaches that] ethically should be removed from their positions, from the top, administrators, staff. One coach [Trumbo] is retiring and the other should be fired. When things like this happen, the coach should be removed,” a parent said.

The Record reached out to Kimball to ask if any disciplinary action would be initiated for faculty, if any remedial measures had been initiated to prevent the behavior from happening in the future and why the locker rooms weren’t supervised. Kimball stated that some remedial measures have been initiated but she declined to answer the other questions.