A federal district court judge dismissed a Title IX lawsuit brought by Becky Nelle against the Huntsville School District after approving a settlement proposed by the two parties. 

Nelle, on behalf of her minor son, brought the lawsuit a year ago alleging the district violated Title IX by knowing that her son was being sexually assaulted by his junior high school basketball teammates in the locker rooms before and after games, but took no action to prevent or to remedy the alleged assaults.

Nelle requested damages for physical harm, grief and other permanent emotional harm suffered by her son. 

In July, Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, representing Nelle, brought a settlement proposal before Huntsville School Board members, stating Nelle would settle the case for $1 if the district would admit liability.

Going against the advice of the district’s attorney, Charlie Harwell of Crouch, Harwell, Fryar and Ferner, Huntsville School Board members at a July 25 specially called meeting voted 6-0, with one member recusing, to accept liability and the settlement offer. 

Because a minor is involved, the board and Nelle had to seek court approval. 

During a court hearing last month, McCutchen argued the school’s admission of liability and its implementation of Title IX training will help prevent the abuse from happening again. He also told the court that the settlement proposal would help the minor avoid the anxiety of a trial and its disruption of his school work. 

“It has been an unfortunate couple of years for our community,” Nelle said. “Closure is always good.

“The best advice I can give to all parents is to stand up for your kids. Sometimes it’s hard but it’s worth it. 

“I’m extremely proud of my son’s courage during this difficult time. He has shown how a young man should stand up for themselves and not be afraid.”

In his written order handed down last week, Brooks noted that in the past, parties bringing these type of abuse cases have recovered significant monetary awards, but that a U.S. Supreme Court case, Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C, handed down in April limits damages for emotional distress and only allows pecuniary damages. 

McCutchen told the court that his client suffered very few medical expenses. McCutchen also waived his attorney’s fees under the settlement offer. 

After considering the recent Supreme Court decision, Brooks found the settlement to be reasonable and accepted it. The court noted that the district’s admission of guilt and its Title IX training “serve the interests [the minor] sought to vindicate by bringing the lawsuit.

“Settling this matter now to avoid an emotionally fraught trial – that cannot result in any significant damage award – also benefits [the minor],” Brooks wrote. 

Nelle filed suit last September in the Western Division of the U.S. District Court alleging the district knew the sexual abuse was taking place but failed to promptly and properly investigate or stop it, and that the district’s failure 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 victims to be fearful of retaliation and retribution. 

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or gender in schools and if violated could impact the district’s ability to receive federal funding.

For two years, before and after ballgames, basketball players allegedly physically restrained teammates while others allegedly sexually abused them by placing their bare genitals or buttocks on players’ faces or foreheads. The players called these acts “baptizing” or “bean-dipping.”

Several children were abused while several other students were the ones abusing their teammates. Two Title IX investigations took place ,but only two students were expelled for a semester. The school board – of which three did not seek reelection and three were defeated in May – threw out punishment for other students who were alleged to have physically restrained teammates being assaulted.

“I think it’s been a total system failure from start to finish,” McCutchen said. 

“I’m going to ask for a Legislative Audit to evaluate the performance of the Arkansas State Police,” he said. “They need to be examined. When you have 17, at least 17 kids, that are abused, assaulted and the state never once investigates, you have a system failure,” he said.

“The governor is obviously in charge of this. And the legislature needs to be looking into this. Both of those entities were involved in transferring $50 million to our schools and in terms of school safety, yet, you can put armed guards at the front of the school, but if you’re allowing kids, child after child, to be sexually assaulted in a locker room that needs to be looked into.”

Criminal complaints were filed last September against the former superintendent Audra Kimball, who is now director of personnel and program compliance, former junior high school coach Kaleb Houston, Director of Athletics Tom McCollough and Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix for failure to contact the child abuse hotline when they learned of the sexual-abuse allegations as required by law. 

Those cases are being reviewed by Fourth Judicial Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett, who said that the cases remain under investigation and no charges have been filed.