The Huntsville School Board violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information law by not notifying the press of a meeting involving the expulsion of two students involved in a Title IX investigation into sexual harassment/sexual assault involving the Huntsville High School Boys Basketball program. 

Sometime in April or the beginning of May, the school board met without notifying the press, retired into executive session to discuss the possibility of expulsions, reconvened in the board room in front of parents and the Huntsville School District Title IX Coordinator Tonja McCone to vote on the expulsions, but failed to make a recording of any part of the public meeting. 

The Record has chosen not to identify any of the students involved in the Title IX investigation. 

At that specially called meeting, the board voted to expel two students for one year based upon allegations of their involvement in “baptizing” – a term used in the allegations of Title IX investigation for acts in the boys’ locker rooms. 

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 face 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.

The Freedom of Information Act law requires all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular, of the governing bodies of school districts to be public meetings.  

The law also states that “in the event of emergency or special meetings, the person calling the meeting shall notify the representatives of the newspapers … located in the county in which the meeting is to be held … of the time, place, and date of the meeting. Notification shall be made at least two (2) hours before the meeting takes place in order that the public shall have representatives at the meeting.”

The law states that after hearing all testimony and debate on a suspension, expulsion, or appeal, the board of directors may consider its decision in executive session without the presence of anyone other than the board members.

However, Huntsville School District Superintendent Audra Kimball stated that she was in the executive session and that the school district’s attorney, Charles Harwell, had advised her that she could be in attendance. 

At the conclusion of an executive session, the law states that the board shall reconvene in public session to vote on the suspension, expulsion or appeal. In addition, the law requires that all officially scheduled, special or called, open public meetings be recorded. The district did not record any part of the public meeting. 

The Record was not notified of the expulsion hearing until after an appeal from that hearing was filed. The appeal stated that a school board member had a conflict of interest in the case because the board member is related to one of the students involved. The appeal stated that the “voting was done in private.” 

John Tull, an attorney for The Record as well as the Arkansas Press Association and an expert on FOIA law, confirmed the district broke the law.

“The only exemption is if a parent or guardian requests the hearing be held in executive session but the fact the hearing was held and then a discussion in an executive session clearly shows this was a violation of FOIA and it is disappointing the board apparently intended to specifically exclude the press so as to keep parents of students in the dark,” Tull said. 

The school district notified The Record of the appeals hearings that took place on May 19 and lasted into the early morning hours of May 20. At that time, the board modified its decision and shortened the expulsion of the two students from a year to a semester. 

Kimball stated that she did not notify The Record and did not make a recording of the expulsion hearing, but she said the mistake was unintentional and an honest mistake. 

“I cannot find where I notified you,” Kimball said when asked why the paper was not notified. “I spent the morning looking. I thought maybe I called Rod (Harrington, The Record’s editor). I can tell you it’s all been a very stressful situation. I have to own my mistake because I can’t find proof of it. I have to own the recording too,” Kimball said.

“It was an honest mistake that I didn’t notify y’all. It wasn’t intentional,” Kimball said. Kimball said she has always erred on the side of caution when notifying The Record of meetings and has worked hard to always include the press. “I think you know me well enough to know that I did not do that intentionally.”

Huntsville School Board President Danny Thomas said in a text, “On the FOIA violation I definitely do not know where or how we did anything wrong at the moment. If we did, it was completely an oversight or accidental. You know we wouldn’t do that … on purpose.” 

The law also states that a “person who negligently violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.”

In 2018, a student in the district was expelled over concerns involving an Instagram post that officials stated led to widespread panic.

Kylan Pierce, then a junior at the high school, posted a photo of himself on Instagram holding an assault rifle and wearing a trench coat. Pierce posted only the photo – and another later of him wearing the trench coat without the firearm – without any words accompanying it. One student posted under the photo, “When I drop my pencil start shooting.”

Before the expulsion hearing, the district notified The Record of the expulsion hearing, which was open to the public as requested by Pierce and his parents. Pierce was expelled for a year, as was another student involved. 

A lawsuit brought by Pierce’s mother, Jessica McKinney, against the school district for the expulsion of Pierce was later settled with the district paying McKinney $42,665.