In addition to admitting violating open-meetings laws by failing to notify the press, and thereby the public, of expulsion hearings and board training sessions, the Huntsville School District and its board members also asked the court to strike certain allegations in a lawsuit filed in July by Witter resident Benjamin Rightsell. The board and the district also contend that they did not violate the Freedom of Information Act by discussing school business via text rather than in public at board meetings.

The district’s filing comes in response to an amended complaint in the lawsuit filed by Rightsell’s attorney Joey McCutchen.

School District attorney Charles Harwell filed a motion to strike portions of the lawsuit or place them under seal, alleging that the allegations violated certain students’ right to privacy. He states allegations in a Title IX investigation that were attached as an exhibit in McCutchen’s lawsuit have nothing to do with whether or not the district notified the press of expulsion hearings or training sessions. In a brief to the court, Harwell writes, “If these exhibits and allegations remain in the Court file, the minor children who are survivors of these terribly private, embarrassing, humiliating events risk precise public identifications – without their names being published.”

After a Title IX investigation into the junior high boys’ basketball team, two students were disciplined for “baptizing” other students. Players were considered “baptized” when teammates physically restrained them while other players undressed and placed their bare genitals in or on the restrained players’ faces and foreheads. Players were also “bean-dipped,” which occurred when players placed their rectum on another player’s face or nose. 

A Title IX investigation was opened by the district at the end of February. Two players admitted to “baptizing” other teammates. One player stated that he was “baptized” during the prior season. Several players confided that they were “baptized” or “bean-dipped” multiple times over two basketball seasons. 

In June, the Madison County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into the allegations. The lengthy report was turned over to Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett’s office earlier this month. Durrett’s office handles investigations into Madison and Washington counties.

“We have completed our review but since the case involves juveniles, I can’t comment on any specifics of it,” Durrett said. 

“I believe that as far as I know the sheriff’s office did as thorough an investigation as they could,” Durrett said. “Certainly if anyone feels that there was an avenue or any area that was not investigated, they’re free to go and file a report with the sheriff’s office.” 

Harwell stated that looking at the documents filed by McCutchen, the public would be able to identify some of the victims. “Survivors risk further humiliation, embarrassment and degradation,” Harwell states.

“The children and families who were involved in the Title IX investigation have a legal right to privacy. They did not bring this suit, and they did not ask to be further drug into the public sphere by the Plaintiff who, apparently, insists on making this case about them and what happened to them,” Harwell wrote to the court.

During the investigatory process and in the reports presented to parents that were attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit, students were only identified by the grade they were in and a letter. For instance, an eighth-grade student might have been identified as 8a or 8b, etc. 

However, before making its decisions, the board was given a list of the boys’ names.

“It think it’s hypocrisy to now say that we’re trying to protect the students and their privacy rights are violated when the board members were actually given the names of the students,” McCutchen said. “If they know the names of the students, it could also imply favoritism. … Why would they be entitled to know names if they were going to dispense justice fairly?”

McCutchen said that the motion to strike “is simply trying to divert attention away from multiple admitted Freedom of Information Act violations.” He said the exhibits attached to the amended complaint neither provide any detailed information regarding children nor identify any child by name. 

As an exhibit, McCutchen attached a copy of the Title IX Sexual Harassment Determination of Responsibility report that was sent via mail, rather than certified mail, to multiple parents whose children were involved in the Title IX investigation. McCutchen also stated that some survivors are speaking out as part of their healing process. (See The Record’s story, page 1A). “That’s what I’ve found that the victims that I’ve spoken to find this to be a healing process and not that they are going to be humiliated in any way,” McCutchen said. 

In addition to its motion to strike, Harwell admitted that the board and district violated the open-meetings law and that they did not properly maintain recordings of the meetings as required by law. 

On three occasions last school year, the school board held expulsion hearings in which it did not notify the press, thereby the public, of expulsion hearings. 

In August 2020, the board expelled a student for one year after he brought a B.B. gun to school. At that hearing, a parent requested the meeting be closed to the public. The law requires that the board call the meeting to order in public and if a parent requests a closed meeting, then the board may hear and discuss the evidence in private. But, the board then must reconvene in public and vote on disciplinary actions in public. The press was not notified of the August expulsion meeting and recordings were not maintained.

In February 2021, the board held an expulsion hearing after a student set a piece of paper on fire and placed it in a restroom trash can. The board failed to notify the press and thereby the public of the special meeting. When it convened, it moved to close the meeting to the public despite a parent not being there to make that request. The board voted to expel the student for one year. It did not maintain a recording of the vote.

In May 2020, the board held an expulsion hearing with the basketball players involved in the Title IX case. The press was not notified. Parents requested a closed meeting and the board reconvened in public to vote to expel the students for one year. No recording was maintained.

The press was notified of appeals hearings after one student appealed his yearlong expulsion and three students, alleged to have restrained players who were “baptized” or “bean-dipped,” appealed their five days out-of-school suspensions. 

When The Record showed up to cover the hearings, our reporter helped the students and their parents access the building for the appeals hearings because the doors to the administration building were locked from the outside. However, our reporter was then asked to leave the building for the open part of the meeting.

At the appeals hearings, the board went against decision-makers recommendations and lessened the expulsions from one year to one semester for two students and threw out completely punishment for three students alleged to have physically restrained players being “baptized.” 

McCutchen has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a parent and a victim of the sexual assaults in federal court contending that the district violated Title IX regulations. The district has not responded to that lawsuit.

The Record reached out the Harwell and Huntsville School District Superintendent Audra Kimball for comment, but did not receive a response.