Editor’s note: Descriptions of the sexual harassment/assaults in this story may be considered graphic in nature.  

A parent of a student alleged to have been sexually harassed and assaulted by his Huntsville Junior High School basketball teammates during the 2020-2021 basketball season filed a Title IX lawsuit contending that the Huntsville School District knew the assaults were taking place but failed to promptly and properly investigate or stop them. 

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the Western Division of the U.S. District Court, also states the district created a hostile educational environment by placing those who had allegedly been sexually harassed and assaulted in the same classrooms with their assaulters, some who faced no punishment, which caused the victims to be fearful of retaliation and retribution. 

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects students from discrimination based on sex in educational programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Huntsville School District receives federal funding. 

Sexual harassment under Title IX includes sexual assault, according to the Department of Education. 

The suit alleges that then Junior High School Head Basketball Coach Kaleb Houston was informed by both a student and parent as early as October 2020 about the sexual assaults, but that Houston failed to investigate, take corrective action or call the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline as required by law.

“The Huntsville School District had knowledge that these children were being sexually assaulted and did nothing,” said Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who represents the parent and a victim.

The suit alleges that players sexually assaulted and harassed other teammates by “baptizing” them or “bean dipping.” 

“Baptizing” occurred when players physically restrained teammates while other players undressed and placed their bare genitals in or on the restrained players’ faces. “Bean-dipping” occurred when players placed their rectum on another player’s face or nose. The incidents happened multiple times to several players over the span of two basketball seasons. Some students who participated in “baptizing” during the 2020-21 season had also been “baptized,” during the 2019-2020 season. 

After a formal Title IX complaint was filed at the end of February, the district began an investigation into the junior high program. Decision makers recommended expulsion for a year for two students, who admitted to “baptizing” other players; five days out-of-school suspension for three players, who allegedly restrained other players being “baptized;” and five days of in-school suspension for one player, who was also placed on probation for the fall semester and required to attend AAA Conduct Training and Title IX Bullying and Sexual Harassment training. 

After testimony in appeals hearings, Huntsville School Board members went against decision makers’ recommendations by lessening the punishment for two players from a year’s suspension to a semester and threw out the out-of-school suspensions and bullying and sexual assault training for three players for what it called a lack of evidence. 

Those students who had their punishment thrown out remain active in high school sports and volunteered during peewee sports camps over the summer.

A Title IX investigation into members of the Huntsville High School boys basketball team remains ongoing.  At the end of August, the district turned over that investigation to an outside decision maker, Fayetteville attorney Brian Hogue, who will make a disciplinary recommendation to the Huntsville School Board. 

The lawsuit filed Friday alleges that a student, who is not identified for fear of immediate retaliation, told Houston around October 2020 about the baptisms by older basketball players against younger students that were taking place before and after basketball games. The lawsuit also contends that a parent of a basketball player sent a text message to Houston also notifying him of improper sexual activities and stating that Houston needed to take corrective action. 

The suit contends that Houston took no corrective action, including reporting the activities to the district’s Title IX coordinator Tonja McCone, Huntsville School Superintendent Audra Kimball or Huntsville Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson.

The suit alleges that Houston also failed to call the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline as required by law. Because Houston was at the time a teacher and a coach, he was considered a mandated reporter and was required to call the hotline immediately if he suspected child maltreatment. 

A person who does not report suspected child abuse to the hotline can be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. 

Kimball said she called the hotline, but that she does not know the exact date that she made the call. Kimball also referred all questions about the lawsuit filed Friday to school attorney, Charles Harwell. 

Harwell refused to respond to an email asking for comments or respond to questions about the lawsuit at the school board’s regular meeting on Monday night. 

Before the lawsuit was filed, Houston said, “I had no idea that any of that was going on in the locker room.” Houston did not respond to questions regarding the allegations made in the lawsuit regarding being informed in October 2020.

Houston resigned in August, just days before the first day of school, but after practices for sports that he had coached had begun. 

“After careful consideration and prayer I have decided to pursue an opportunity of employment in Real Estate,” Houston wrote in his resignation to Kimball on Aug. 2. 

“It has been a pleasure working for the Huntsville School District the last three years. I love and respect Huntsville and want what is best for the school. I appreciate the opportunity to teach and coach here. I feel like this decision is what is best for me and my family at this time,” Houston wrote. 

The lawsuit alleges that a player was subjected to being “bean-dipped” as well as “baptized” multiple times, sometimes being subjected to both actions on the same night. Players who were “baptized” or “bean-dipped” were told they would “get it worse” if they told authorities what was taking place. The threats made players fearful to tell school authorities, the lawsuit states. 

The suit alleges “baptizing” and “bean-dipping” were “prevalent” on the Huntsville Middle School and the Huntsville High School basketball teams. 

“A report from the Defendant appears to identify, by initials only, at least 17 students that were victimized by this sexual harassment during participation before or after basketball games and for which Defendant is responsible,” the lawsuit states. 

At least four other middle school players were sexually harassed or assaulted, the lawsuit states. “One junior high basketball player at the Huntsville School District Middle School even paid another student not to do it to him,” the suit alleges. 

The lawsuit also alleges conflicts of interest during the Title IX investigations, making any disciplinary actions taken unfair. 

The lawsuit states some players involved in the investigation have parents who work for the district, as well as another student involved being related to a school board member. 

“The investigations and punishments were conducted by people with obvious conflicts of interest,” McCutchen said. “The result was that the perpetrators either received no meaningful punishment or no punishment at all. This creates a hostile educational environment for all students because these perpetrators are now back in school and playing sports like nothing ever happened.”

The lawsuit states that because Houston had knowledge of the alleged sexual assaults, he had a conflict of interest by also acting as an investigator of the events. After the district was made aware of the allegations, it asked Houston, St. Paul Principal Bruce Dunlap and High School Basketball Coach Grant Myrick to question players concerning the allegations. 

Title IX coordinator McCone overheard a conversation between Huntsville School District Director of Athletics Tom McCollough and Kimball discussing the allegations and she informed them that the case would fall under Title IX provisions. A formal Title IX investigation was opened. 

Houston remained an investigator in the Title IX investigation.

McCutchen said the court will set a scheduling order, which sets strict deadlines that have to be met. “At some point, we’re going to start the discovery process, which will included interrogatories to the other side as well as depositions of key witnesses,” McCutchen said.

“With Covid, sometimes we’ve seen getting a trial date getting pushed back, but I would say within a year,” he said. 

“We should be able to trust that our children are being protected from sexual assault in our public schools. The entire Huntsville School District has betrayed the trust of children and their families and they need to be held accountable,” McCutchen said. 

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial, as well as unspecified damages for physical and emotional harm and grief. 

McCutchen filed a previous lawsuit against the district in August contending that the district violated the Freedom of Information Act when it failed to notify the media and thereby the public of the expulsion hearing in which the board considered the recommended punishment in the Title IX case. 

The district also held two other expulsions hearings and training sessions without notifying the media and exchanged text messages regarding the lifting of a mask mandate during the last school year.