A decision maker in the Huntsville School District’s months-long second Title IX investigation concluded three players on the 2019-2020 junior high basketball team committed sexual harassment but expulsion of the players was “not warranted.”

The decision means the Huntsville School Board will most likely not recommend disciplinary actions against the three players alleged to have sexually assaulted teammates during the 2019-2020 basketball season.

In his Determination of Responsibility, Title IX decision maker Cody Kees stated the players could return to onsite learning and school activities this week with the exception of participating in the basketball program for the rest of the season. 

Two players expelled for the fall 2021 semester for sexually abusing teammates during the 2020-21 basketball season were also allowed to return to onsite learning and activities this week, essentially bringing to a close any disciplinary actions against players involved in “bean-dipping” or “baptizing” teammates that took place during the last two basketball seasons. 

Beginning in February 2021, the district conducted two Title IX investigations – an investigation involving the 2020-2021 junior high team (the 2020 team) that was closed in May 2021 and an investigation into the 2019-2020 junior high team (the 2019 team) in which Kees rendered a decision last week. 

Both Title IX investigations involved allegations that players sexually assaulted other players by “bean-dipping” or “baptizing” teammates, terms used to describe players actions of placing their bare genitals or buttocks on teammates faces or foreheads. Players allegedly physically restrained teammates while they were being assaulted. 

After lengthy investigations into the allegations and despite numerous students identifying who sexually abused them as well as players stating they witnessed the acts and stated who allegedly assaulted other players, only three students ended up being punished by the district for their roles in the abuse of teammates. Two players, who admitted “baptizing” teammates, were expelled for one semester, while another student received suspension. That student did not appeal his discipline.

Kees, an attorney in private practice in Little Rock hired by the district to recommend punishment for the students on the 2019 team, stated that although three students on that team were guilty of sexually harassing teammates, expulsion was “not warranted” because the students had already missed a semester of onsite learning and participation in onsite school activities. 

Kees recognized the students voluntarily chose not attend onsite school in the district last semester. The school did not bar their attendance and students could have participated in school activities. 

Kees stated that because the students had not attended Huntsville High School – one no longer in the district by choice, one no longer enrolled in school by choice and one attending HHS virtually, also by choice – the students had effectively served a semester of expulsion so no more disciplinary measures were needed. Kees did not recommend Title IX training or anti-bullying training. 

“Accordingly, although expulsion for a semester is appropriate discipline, it should be retroactive since the [students] have, albeit by personal choice, already forfeited a semester of onsite learning and activities,” Kees wrote in his determination of responsibility. “Further complicating this issue of expulsion is that only the school can expel a student, not the decision maker,” according to District Policy 4.31. 

“Given the protracted grievance process, it is not prudent to further delay disciplinary action with an additional expulsion hearing, especially when the board would only be affirming expulsion as a retroactive discipline. 

“In light of these circumstances, expulsion is not warranted,” Kees wrote.

In making his recommendation, Kees stated that student discipline should be consistent. He wrote that because the players on the 2020 team, who admitted to “baptizing” teammates, were expelled for a semester, the players on the 2019 team who “committed the same acts of sexual harassment under the same circumstances,” should receive the same discipline. But in the end, Kees called expulsion unwarranted and did not recommend any punishment by the school board. 

During a separate Title IX investigation into the 2020 team, three decision makers – Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Director of Athletics Tom McCollough – recommended a year-long expulsion for two students who admit “baptizing” teammates. The school board went against the recommendation, lessened the punishment and expelled the students for a semester. 

Board member Lenora Riedel, who is related to one of the students in the case, voted against punishing the students even for a semester, contending that the students should not be given that lengthy of a punishment. “My reasoning was based on the school’s handbook, which could have offered a lesser punishment based on the offense,” Riedel told The Record at that time.

The school board also threw out the decision makers’ recommendation in the 2020 case of five-days out-of-school suspensions for three players alleged to have physically restrained teammates being sexually assaulted. Those three students were also not disciplined in any way by the district and continue to play sports and are not restricted from any activities. 

In his report, Kees does not mention the school board’s lessening of the punishment in the 2020 case. 

Kees did not respond to whether he would have recommended year-long expulsions had the board not lessened the punishment. In a text message, Kees said, “Since my report is complete, I must pass on discussing it or the case. The process is now back to the district to complete from here consistent with applicable policy.”

Kees stepped in as decision maker in early December replacing Brian Hogue, who recused from the case after longtime Huntsville School Board Member Duane Glenn sent Hogue a text asking Hogue to punish the three students being investigated “to the max”.  

Glenn texted Hogue that if the students weren’t given the maximum punishment, the district would “have major problems.” After Glenn’s actions were reported, Hogue stepped down and Kees was retained by the district. 

Glenn later texted The Record that he, “in no way tried to get the respondents out of trouble. The public wants this over and respondents punished.”

However, Kees did not implement the maximum punishment, which he notes in his  determination of responsibility could have been a year-long expulsion.  Glenn did not respond to a request for comment. 

This Title IX investigation into the 2019 team began after two students filed complaints alleging they were sexually assaulted during the 2019-2020 season. One complainant stated he was threatened that if he told of being abused, the players being investigated would “beat his ass.” His complaint also stated that one student who had sexually abused him also passed down to him the title of “ballmaster.” This student also admitted to “baptizing” fellow students during the 2020-2021 season and was initially recommended a year-long expulsion.

While not recommending expulsion by the board, Kees found students on the 2019 team had sexually harassed teammates. Under the district’s policy, harassment occurs when a student is exposed to a pattern of “actionable behaviors or when a single, serious act is committed.”

“A reasonable person would find the unwelcome touching or ‘baptizing’ or ‘bean-dipping’ committed by [the students] was performed on the basis of sex (participation on the all-male team) and was objectively offensive such that it effectively denied [students] and other members of the junior high boys’ basketball team equal access to the District’s activity,” Kees wrote. 

“From the interviews, follow-up questions and materials provided in the investigative packets, [the students] more likely than not committed sexual harassment. The acts of sexual harassment by [the students] were committed on numerous occasions exposing a pattern of offensive conduct by [the players].” 

In finding that the students had committed sexual harassment, Kees stated in his report that 14 players identified one player as committing the offenses, five witnesses identified another player and six witnesses identified the final player as “baptizing” or “bean-dipping” other players. Kees stated that he relied only on the testimony of players actually witnessing the sexual abuse.

Kees noted one student’s testimony that the players would “pull out their ‘thing’ and rub it across your face.” Four other students specifically identified a particular player as either a “bean-dipper” or “baptizer.” 

During additional interviews, conducted by HSD Title IX Coordinator Tonja McCone, another student stated “I didn’t actually see it because the lights were off. Before the lights went off, [the player] was pulling his pants and the lights went off and then when the lights came on he was pulling his pants back up.” 

Kees wrote that one student stated “they put their penis or testicles on another player’s face depending on how much they resisted usually after a game or a win. … After we won a ballgame. … If we won everyone went crazy and that’s when it happened. It happened pretty often.”

Kees quoted from another student’s testimony, which was “a group of people would hold people down and one would put their ball sack on their face … It was done to my friends. … It happened at every home game and happened twice at away games.” Kees noted that this student specifically identified the players who committed the acts. 

Another student stated, “[T]hey held them down on the couch and turn out the lights and someone would put their bad parts on their forehead.” Again, this student identified the players who committed the acts. 

In the report, yet another student stated, “[T]hey would throw them on the couch, turn off the lights and put their penis on them. … it happened to my friends … at every home game that we won.” That student also identified the perpetrators. 

Kees noted in his report that he disagreed with one of the alleged perpetrator’s account of the events who stated “it seems that everyone thought it (the issue of ‘baptizing’) was more as a joke because no one I know of took it seriously and everyone was always laughing and that it was ‘more like rough housing.’”  

A student or parent may appeal the decision within 10 days but only if they contend that a procedural irregularity affected the outcome, new evidence that was not reasonably available at that time of the decision is presented or the Title IX coordinator, investigator or decision maker had a conflict of interest or was bias against the students filing the complaint or being investigated.