Tempers flared Monday night as parents and community members addressed the Huntsville School Board about their anger and frustrations over a lack of discipline and transparency about Huntsville Junior High basketball players’ involvement in alleged sexual assaults against teammates.

The board meeting became heated early with people asking to speak but being denied. After a few minutes of public comment, Huntsville School Board President Danny Thomas told the crowd he would allow public comments after the board completed its regular meeting. The crowed waited for it to complete the agenda, to go into executive session taking no action and then adjourning. It then spent an hour and a half listening to comments. 

Matthew Rightsell, an 8th grader at Huntsville Middle School, attended the meeting after basketball practice, wearing his jersey because his father, Ben Rightsell, told the board that Matthew was afraid to change in the boys locker room. 

As his father stood to address the board, Matthew stood beside him wiping away tears. 

“That’s our concern, the people who did this, what’s to stop them from doing this again?… We have to see that the proper steps were taken,” Rightsell said. “The steps that have been taken in the punishment department, that’s not good enough. I don’t want my son to have to walk up and down the hallways thinking ’Is this going to happen to me.’” 

Others spoke out that they were fearful for relatives to attend Huntsville schools and wanted to know what would be done to protect students. 

One woman made her way into the packed board room to speak of the fear she has for her sister attending Huntsville schools.

“I’ve been a student for three years here in Huntsville,” she said. “My sister is going into 8th grade, and she looks up to me,” she said, her voice shaking and rising. “What am I supposed to tell her? That you are doing nothing? Am I supposed to just back down and be quiet about this.”

Another parent stated that no child should have to change clothes in the locker room until this is resolved appropriately. “None of them should ever be exposed to the locker room until they are confident and safe.” 

The outcry from the public is in response to the lessening of punishment for five students who were involved in “baptizing” teammates in the locker rooms after ballgames. 

“Baptizing” occurred when players restrained younger teammates while other players undressed and placed genitals in or on the restrained players’ faces. In a Title IX investigation conducted by the school, two players admitted to “baptizing” teammates.

According to a victim’s parent, the incidents happened multiple times to several players. Some players were “baptized” more than 10 times. 

One parent told The Record that their son had told him that after a game, the older boys stood in front of the locker room doors to prevent other players from leaving. Younger players would run and hide in the locker room showers, the lights would go off, and when the lights came back on, a player who had been “baptized” would be laying in the floor crying.

School board members and Huntsville School Superintendent Audra Kimball were made aware of the “baptizing” incidents in February.  After the school conducted a Title IX Investigation, decision makers – Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Director of Athletics Tom McCollough – recommended a yearlong expulsion for two students, five days out-of-school suspension for three students, and in-school suspension for one student.

The board lessened the punishment, shortening the yearlong expulsion to a semester and throwing out punishment completely for three students.

The school board’s regular monthly meeting was interrupted shortly after it began when Patricia Mikkelson, founder of the grassroots group Madison County Residents Connect, stood and asked the board members to resign, pointing to a petition that has been circulating in person and on social media. As of press time, the petition had close to 200 signatures. 

Thomas informed Mikkelson that she was not on the agenda and “out of order.” As Kimball motioned for police assistance, more members from the group stood in support of Mikkelson’s request. 

Board Member Duane Glenn immediately moved to adjourn. Members of the audience asked the board to let them speak. “Hear us out guys. We’re being peaceful,” parent Carl Stewart stated. Another person said, “Hear us now, or hear us later.” 

Board members Kevin Wilson and Glenn exited the room, but other board members remained.

Board member Lenora Riedel, who many parents feel has a conflict of interest in the case because of a family member’s involvement, did not attend Monday’s meeting. 

Board member Terry Forsyth left after the meeting was adjourned and before hearing comments from the crowd.

Thomas asked the crowd to let him speak saying, “First of all, we are not a court of law,” he said. After Thomas stated the board was doing all it could “for this school district, for this community and for these families,” parents stated, “then you need to tell us what’s going on.” 

“If there was any kind of conspiracy or we was sweeping it under the rug, we wouldn’t even be talking about it,” Thomas said.

“You did it before,” Jeremy Updegraff told Thomas. “You had closed door meetings without the media present like you were supposed to have had,” he said, referring to the fact that contrary to the open meetings law, Kimball failed to both notify the press as well as record the meeting when the district held expulsion hearings for students in the case. 

“We need transparency. It doesn’t happen. It hasn’t happened,” Updegraff said. “Give us some confidence that you are going to address this in an appropriate manner and oblige the people to let them know what’s going on.” 

“Do you give me and this board enough respect to talk to me directly after this is over with so we can finish our regular meeting?” Thomas asked. 

“Absolutely,” Updegraff said. 

Stewart spoke next and said his son “was running to the showers when the other three were holding the door shut while the other three or four boys were holding the kids down. I haven’t seen anything done about those kids. They’re still walking in the hallways. When school was let out, they were still in the school building, walking down the hallways by the kids that had bullied them.”

“My son is well built, like I am, and he was scared to say what happened, let alone the kids that weren’t that size, as the bullies walked by them everyday in those hallways.”

“There’s been nothing done,” Stewart said.

Board member, Janeal Yancey, interrupted, “Sir, I don’t know you. What’s your name?” She said Title IX limits the district in informing the public about the discipline decided on in an investigation.

Accused Students Remain
In Sports

Many people in the crowd were shocked and frustrated that some of the students involved in “baptizing” were still participating in sports teams.

“And as a matter of fact, I know they’re participating in sports still. Today. Right now. From 6 to 8 o’clock tonight,” Stewart said. 

“So we’re still rewarding them by allowing them to play.”

T.W. Dotson, a Madison County Quorum Court justice of the peace and parent with children in the district, said he had spoken to coaches about the situation. 

“It’s upsetting because those kids are still in practice,” he said. “I didn’t know that. I’m finding that out right now like everybody else is.

“The kids that are being investigated are in there with those kids right now? The kids that held the door and didn’t let them out? The kids it happened to? If any of those kids are in the practice right now, with my son or your son, that’s very stressful,” Dotson said. 

“They’re down butting elbows with the kids they done it too playing basketball right now,” Stewart said. 

“It’s not something, Carl, that I’m happy with either,” Thomas said. 

Dotson continued to press the board to answer his question. 

“Are those kids who were physically entrapping those children, are they really practicing with those kids today? … Do you know if the players that did it, do you know if the players that did, are they in practice?”

Thomas said that the only two students who are not allowed to play sports currently are the two who were expelled. 

Tonja McCone, Title IX director, said, “There’s two that have received discipline, punishment for the junior high investigation.”

Title IX Limitations

The board stated it was restricted by Title IX limitations on how much it could tell the crowd about the investigations, including the ongoing one and the closed junior high investigation. 

McCone stated she had been thoroughly trained on Title IX procedures and had spent  “hours and hours in intensive training. … I’ve watched all kinds of webinars and all kinds of documents over the last year, so there is a very precise protocol that we have to follow.” 

“I have been trained intensively. … The school board has also been trained,” she added.

She said Title IX mandates that the school keeps order in the classroom and in the school “so that the students can be here safely to get an education.”

When Stewart pointed out the students weren’t safe, McCone stated, “Anyone in here as a parent has an opportunity to go civil with it. That is not our role.” 

During the regular meeting, the board approved a $2,500 per-semester stipend for McCone for her role as Title IX coordinator. 

“Tonja is the brains when it comes to the Title IX issue because she has spent hours upon hours upon hours,” learning it, Thomas said. 

People asked if the students alleged to have “baptized” other players can be separated from other students during an investigation. “Title IX doesn’t prevent it or encourage it,” McCone said. 

McCone said the now-closed junior high investigation was conducted by Huntsville school district employees, but the ongoing high school investigation is not.

Dr. Tammy Tucker, Title IX coordinator for Fayetteville School District, is conducting interviews with the high school players. After the investigation is complete, Fayetteville attorney Brian Hogue will act as decision maker. 

“There are still more questions to be asked” in the ongoing investigation, McCone said. “We’re still in the middle of the process.”

After Stewart asked if his son would be questioned in the ongoing investigation, McCone stated that he had been called again for an interview but that he declined. 

“No ma’am we did not,” Stewart said.

“I may be mistaken, then,” McCone said. 

“You very much so are,” Stewart replied. 

New Information Since Investigation 

Yancey, defensive, said that the crowd didn’t understand the punishment and was listening to misinformation.  

When questioned why the punishment was lessened, Yancey said some of the problem was due to “misinformation.”

“I work in a business that fights misinformation all the time. There’s a lot of misinformation in this situation,” she said.

Stewart responded, “My son was in the locker room. Was yours?” 

When Yancey replied “No,” Stewart said, “There’s no misinformation there, ma’am. I guarantee it.” 

Ferguson, who was a decision maker in the now closed junior high school investigation, said one of the problems with the current situation is “some of the things that have come out now were not included in that investigative report. That’s not what we had to make a decision on.”

Board member Glenn blamed a lack of information for the board not having all the information in the case before it when the decision to lessen and throw out the punishment was made.

“If somebody is going to the paper and saying, ‘This happened,’ and we didn’t have it right here (in the report), we didn’t know that. So that’s part of the problem right there,” Glenn said.

“You just admitted that people came and talked to you,” Updegraff said.

Ferguson said as more and more people have heard about the investigations, more information is coming out and more victims are beginning to tell their stories.

In order to go forward now with information in the closed junior high investigation, parents would have to file a new Title IX complaint or a complaint with law enforcement. 

Filing A Complaint

“We’ve been trying to fight with both hands behind our back, and it’s been a terrible situation,” Thomas said. “But as Tonja said we aren’t a court of law. … There’s a maximum of what we’re allowed to do as a school board period in the state of Arkansas. Beyond that, it has to go to a civil situation because we can’t do that,” Thomas said. 

Ferguson said the lack of proof in the now closed investigatory report was the “hardest thing for us.”

Many parents are displeased by the board reversing course and lessening the punishment for the expelled students and throwing out the punishment for the three students who were accused of physically restraining players. 

“I just don’t agree with the punishment getting lessened,” Stewart said. “I don’t agree with that at all. That’s why I came here tonight.”

When pressed on why the punishment was either lessened or thrown out, Thomas said, “There’s a piece of that that I can’t tell you. In the appeal, there was some new evidence that was provided. … If I could tell you, I would.”

Glenn blamed the lack of action in disciplining the students on a lack of information and a lack of action by parents. 

“Did you file a complaint,” Glenn asked Stewart.

“I’m fixing to,” Stewart said. “I was under the impression that the school was taking care of it. But the school is not taking care of it. Duane, I am going to take it to court.” 

Stewart said he plans to file a complaint with the Huntsville Police Department as well as the Madison County Sheriff’s Department. 

When Stewart received the junior high school investigatory report, he called Sheriff Rick Evans and asked Evans what he planned to do about the allegations. But Evans was not interested in the case.

“They just weren’t hearing it,” Stewart said.

In June, Evans said, his department was not investigating it because, “The school’s handling it.”

The investigatory report sent to parents in April states that School Resource Office Monica Blair, who also works for sheriff’s office, was informed of the allegations. 

Recently, the sheriff’s office also reversed course and began investigating. A complaint has also been filed with the Huntsville Police Chief Todd Thomas, who promised to turn the investigation over to the Arkansas State Police. 

Stewart said he urges parents to speak out and stand with other victims. “That’s what we do as parents,” he said. 

Parents Express A Lack
Of Support

Many people expressed anger that the school didn’t offer support to the victims and their families. 

“There’s been nothing done to show that the school board is trying to help,” Stewart said. 

But the board defended their actions. McCone said letters of support were sent to parents, and Thomas said the board had faced a backlash.

“We took a pretty good beating on this deal,” Thomas said.

“I’m mad, too – not at you but at the situation. I’m mad that we’re having to deal with this situation. 

“This lady to my right (Kimball) has suffered unbelievable, and it has caused her to be physically sick. … I have tried to support her, and she is doing a tremendous job, believe it or not, with what she’s had to work with,” Thomas said. Someone interrupted, “We don’t want to hear how hard you are working, but we want to know about the kids.” 

Yancey said the crowd didn’t understand the punishment and was listening to misinformation when parents said the board had not done anything. 

“But we have done something,” Yancey said. “It’s public record. People have been expelled. That’s all we can do. … Ya’ll are sitting here telling me, ‘Oh, I don’t like what you did.’ Well, ya’ll apparently don’t know what we did,” she said. 

Thomas reminded everyone that the board is dealing with kids.

“We’re talking about kids, young, stupid kids. But nevertheless, we don’t want these kids scarred and ruined for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Thomas asked for patience.

“All that I can ask from everybody is at this point do the best you can to be understanding with us and let us get through this process.” 

Stewart told the crowd that the board had taken too long to act on the allegations and to offer remedial measures to make sure the same thing won’t happen again.

“Whenever I got the call I said, ‘Son, What did you do? I want to know what happened. Right now.’ And he was scared to death to tell me because of the bullying,” Stewart said.

“And down here at the elementary school, it says before you can go on the playground it says, ‘No bullying.’ It won’t be tolerated.”

Stewart said he trusted the school to act for the good of the victims, but too much time has passed and the school failed to act.

“We left it alone. It’s been seven months, Danny. Seven months. What are we waiting for?” Stewart said.

Community-wide Call
To Action

Josh Benshoof, a parent and 2002 graduate, asked the board to stop offering excuses but to just listen. 

“We’re just coming to tell you, ‘Hey, we think you’ve done something wrong. Let’s do something about it, please.’ We don’t want to hear an excuse as to why it’s OK, why you all are doing the best job you can. We just want to know that you all are doing something,” Benshoof said. “It’s constructive criticism. Do something.” 

By lessening the punishment, Benshoof said the board was making it hard for victims to come forward, to tell their stories and to seek help. 

“What is that telling the kids that got victimized?” Benshoof said, stating that the board should consider the victims and how they feel about the punishment being lessened and thrown out. “Who are you going to stand up for the next time it happens? It sure as hell ain’t going to be them.”

Mikkelson also said people were afraid to speak out. 

“People were telling me ‘I’m afraid. I’m not going to say anything.’”

Mikkelson said Madison County Residents Connect will hold a strategic planning meeting this Friday on Polk Square at 6 p.m. “We are not going to stop until justice is served,” she said. Because of redistricting based upon the 2020 census, all board members are up for re-election in May 2022.