Fourth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said his office has begun a criminal review into whether Huntsville School District administrators notified the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline of sexual assault allegations “immediately” as required by law and into whether the Huntsville School Board and District violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act in not turning over requested documents. 

Durrett said his office is reviewing material about potential violations provided to them by Fort Smith Attorney Joey McCutchen. 

McCutchen represents Benjamin Rightsell, who filed suit against the district on July 28 in Madison County Circuit Court alleging the district and the board violated both the open-meetings and open-records portions of FOIA. 

McCutchen also represents a parent who filed suit on behalf of her son – a victim of the alleged sexual assaults – against the district in the United States Western District Court contending it violated various Title IX provisions by having knowledge that the alleged assaults were taking place but failing to promptly and properly investigate or stop them. 

Both lawsuits involve allegations of sexual assault by members of the boys basketball program, who were alleged to have “baptized” or “bean dipped” teammates. “Baptisms,” occurred when several players physically restrained teammates while other players undressed and placed their bare genitals in or on the restrained players’ faces, foreheads or in their hair. Players were also “bean-dipped,” which occurred when players placed their rectum on another player’s face or nose. These acts happened to multiple players on multiple occasions during two basketball seasons.

Last week, a parent also filed a criminal complaint alleging that the district did not call the hotline in the timeframe required by law. 

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Leta Darling is in the process of reviewing documents turned over to her, Durrett said. “So I don’t know if she’s going to ask the [Madison County] Sheriff’s Office to conduct some interviews or do some follow-up work or not. I haven’t discussed that portion of it,” Durrett said. 

The law requires mandated reporters to call the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline immediately if they have a reasonable belief that child maltreatment has occurred. Failure to do so can be a Class A misdemeanor. 

“I think in order to prosecute you’d have to have a specific person, a specific mandated reporter, who received information that gave rise to reasonable cause that child maltreatment had taken place and then you’d have to determine what that person did or did not do in that time frame,” Durrett said. 

“Theoretically you look at all people who are mandated reporters and look at their actions and see what they did or didn’t do and whether or not that complies with the requirements of the statute,” he said. 

“Simply because a person receives a call doesn’t mean that they have to immediately call and report it to the hotline,” Durrett said. “You have to determine whether nor not the information the person received gives enough reasonable cause or puts that person on reasonable notice that a child maltreatment act did take place.”

McCutchen contends that former Junior High School Basketball Coach Kaleb Houston was informed of the sexual assault allegations as early as October 2020 by a parent and a student and that Houston, as a mandated reporter, failed to call the hotline. 

The parent said her son said he was “depants, and was being pushed by boys onto another boys face. He broke free and ran to me in my vehicle,” the affidavit said.  

She states that Houston said he would “take care of it.”  

She also states that she sent Houston a text but that Houston did not respond.

In text messages this summer, Houston denied having any knowledge about the allegations. He did not respond asking for comments about the affidavit. 

A person with knowledge of baptisms informed Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix on Feb. 9 of what had been taking place in the locker rooms and that multiple players had been baptized several times before and after ballgames. The person spoke to The Record on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. 

Enix has said at first she didn’t understand what the person was telling her, what “baptizing” was and the severity of it, but after comprehending, she felt physically ill. That night she called Director of Athletics Tom McCollough, who in turn called Kimball. 

President of the Huntsville School Board Danny Thomas, who was alerted on Feb. 22 by three “different parents” of the allegations, told Kimball about the severity of them in a text message that night. Thomas said he did not know Kimball had known since Feb. 9. 

“I’m sure you’re aware of evidently some serious matters going on with the junior high boys in the locker room situation,” Thomas texted to Kimball. 

“Yes, I’m very aware. Tom [McCollough] is on top of it. They started investigating today,” Kimball texted back.

Kimball seemed to believe the allegations and questioned why those being baptized did not retaliate. “I assure you Tom took it very serious. It won’t be swept under the rug,” Kimball texted to Thomas. 

Thomas texted Kimball, “Well there’s no excuse for that. That is crossing several lines and the reality part of it is if those parents wanted to get an attorney, it’s a slam dunk I would think on those kids that did it and their parents would have to deal with the consequences in my opinion.”

An investigation began on Feb. 22. After a Title IX complaint was filed on Feb. 26, the school began what would be the first of two Title IX investigations. One investigation was complete in May, when two students who admitted to baptizing teammates were expelled for half a semester while three other students who were alleged to have physically restrained players were not disciplined by the school. 

However, the first official hotline call made by the district to the hotline that The Record can confirm did not take place until March. Kimball has stated that she does not recall either the date or the timeframe that she called the hotline. She has referred all questions to Harwell, who has not responded.

Durrett says that while the law protects the identity of the person making the hotline call, it does not shield the date the call was made. District Title IX Coordinator Tonja McCone has stated the Kimball called the hotline but also states she does not remember when the call was made. 

Thomas has stated it was an innocent mistake if the district failed to notify the hotline immediately. 

When asked why the school potentially delayed calling, Thomas said, “Isn’t that probably the right thing to do is to gather the information to find out what’s going on before you start jumping the gun?”

Durrett said that mandated reporters need to have a belief that there is actual maltreatment going on.  “You can’t just take every single phone call and turn it over the hotline. You’re not required to do that,” he said. 

“You have to determine whether nor not the information the person received gives enough reasonable cause or puts that person on reasonable notice that an act did the place, a child maltreatment act did take place,” Durrett said. 

At this point, Durrett said he does not anticipate that the state police will become involved in the criminal review.  “Not unless the sheriff’s office has a conflict and asks us to request assistance from the state police. … I don’t know that they would conduct a wide-ranging investigation into it simply because the hotline is affiliated with their investigative services,” Durrett said. 

So far, the Arkansas Department of Education has not become involved in the case other than to offer advice to the district concerning the Title IX investigations. Asked at what point the department would become involved, spokesperson Kimberly Mundell said, “That’s a very broad hypothetical question we cannot answer at this point.”

Johnny Key, commissioner for the department, called Kimball when the investigation began, but Mundell did not respond to an email asking if Key has been in touch with Kimball since that time. 

Rightsell also filed a criminal complaint last week contending that the district violated FOIA multiple times, but most recently by refusing to hand over text messages. McCutchen filed a FOIA request asking for text messages but was told by the district that those messages were protected by privacy laws.  

The Record obtained text messages between school board members and Kimball through a FOIA request filed by its attorney, John Tull. The Record also obtained emails exchanged between Kimball and McCollough through a FOIA request. Those text messages and emails did not contain names of parents or students involved. The Record also requested emails exchanged between Harwell and Kimball. 

Portions of those emails that were produced to The Record were redacted to protect the student’s identity. 

“We asked for text messages between administration, school board and athletic director, to and from and we were denied our request,” McCutchen said.

A hearing concerning the FOIA violations will take place on Nov. 8 at the Madison County Courthouse at 9 a.m. 

Kimball referred all questions to the district’s attorneys. 

Also, Brian Hogue has been given an investigatory report in an additional ongoing Title IX investigation and is expected to make a recommendation as to what discipline should be imposed on the students being investigated for allegedly baptizing teammates during the 2019-2020 basketball season. 

Durrett said his office is unaware of those investigations and that the sheriff’s office is not investigating. “If a complaint were to be filed, we’d certainly look into it. Or if a referral were to be made, we’d certainly look into it.”

The Madison County Sheriff’s Office conducted a lengthy investigation into the students involved in baptizing during the 2020-21 basketball season. That investigation was also reviewed by Darling. Durrett said due to child maltreatment laws, he is not able to say the outcome of the investigation.