An opinion from Fourth Circuit Judge Doug Martin in a Freedom of Information Act case against the Huntsville School District found the district didn’t violate a portion of the law when it asked The Madison County Record General Manager Shannon Hahn to leave an expulsion hearing concerning students who had been alleged to have sexually assaulted teammates on the Huntsville basketball team.  The letter opinion also stated that the district must turn over text messages exchanged between school board members and the superintendent it had refused to tender as part of a FOIA request.

The case also involved several other FOIA violations. Before testimony in the court case began, the district and Huntsville School Board Superintendent Audra Kimball admitted to numerous FOIA violations, which involved the fact that several school board meetings were not announced or recorded, as required by law.

Fort Smith Attorney Joey McCutchen, who represents Witter resident Ben Rightsell, filed suit against the district on July 28 in Madison County Circuit Court alleging the district and the Huntsville School Board violated both the open-meetings and open-records portions of FOIA. Attorney Steven S. Zega of Crouch, Harwell, Fryar and Ferner law firm, represented the district. The district is also represented by Charles Harwell of the same law firm. The Record was not a party in the lawsuit. 

Some of the FOIA violations regard ongoing investigations into sexual-abuse allegations by boys basketball team members that happened for two seasons in locker rooms before and after ballgames. 

The students called the allegations of sexual assault “baptizing.” “Baptizing” occurred when players placed their bare genitals on teammates faces, while other players physically restrained players being baptized. 

Two students admitted to “baptizing” teammates. During expulsion hearings in which the media was not notified, those students were expelled for one year. 

During an appeals hearing, punishment for those admitting to “baptizing” teammates was lessened and punishment for boys alleged to have physically restrained teammates was thrown out completely. 

Hearings were held in early to mid-2021 for the initial student disciplinary actions, but the media and public did not receive the legally required notice that the hearings were taking place or were denied access to the open portion of the meetings. In addition, the FOIA complaint alleged that the district failed to record or maintain recordings, which is also legally required for all board meetings and hearings. 

The district admitted to not providing notice as required by law and to not maintaining recordings of the meetings, also required by law. It also admitted to discussing matters via text rather than in an open forum, also required by law. 

Martin’s opinion came after the lengthy hearing Nov. 8 that ended with Martin asking both attorneys in the case, Rightsell v. Huntsville School District, to submit briefs in lieu of closing arguments. Those briefs were filed as ordered Nov. 15 and Martin issued his opinion on Monday. 

The opinion was split between the two major remaining complaints in the case that were discussed in the Nov. 8 hearing. The first complaint stemmed from the press being prohibited from attending a set of disciplinary hearings on May 19, 2021. 

After not being informed of earlier of three other expulsion hearings during the 2020-2021 school year, The Record was notified of the May 19 meeting. Hahn represented the paper but was asked to leave by Kimball.

Martin stated that the district acted in accordance with protecting the student’s privacy by asking Hahn to leave.  The court agreed with the district’s argument that by having a reporter in the building, the reporter “stands a good chance of being able to identify the students, especially in a town as small as Huntsville, and will know that the student is at the very least accused of misconduct that could cause his expulsion or lengthy suspension.”

Hahn testified that she was allowed into the locked building by Huntsville School District Title IX Coordinator Tonja McCone. McCone then left the lobby. Because no administrator was in the lobby, Hahn had to open the doors to the building to the student and his family. It was after the student and the family were allowed into the building that Hahn was told to leave. 

Martin’s opinion was also that there was no FOIA violation because Hahn, who testified under subpoena during the Nov. 8 hearing, did not remain on the premises after being told she was not allowed to be present for the hearings. 

Her being told she could not be in the hearings was in the spirit of protecting student privacy and the district was not required to call her back to the hearings once portions were allowed to be open because she chose to leave, according to the opinion. Hahn showed up to attend the 6 p.m. meeting but Kimball and Huntsville School Board President Danny Thomas told her to leave the building and wait in the car. Thomas said he would call Hahn for the open portion of the meeting but did not do so. The public meeting took place a little before 4 a.m. 

The second issue addressed by the court derived from the fact that Rightsell never received documents he requested regarding the ongoing investigation. 

The filing had asked that the district provide Rightsell with documents pertaining to the investigation, including any reports, text messages, emails, etc. It was reported during the hearing that those documents, many of which were provided to The Record also through a FOIA request, were not provided to Rightsell. 

Martin’s opinion said that he must be provided those documents “in-camera” for him to review himself and decide if individual documents contain information that violates student privacy. The opinion indicated that at least one set of text messages discussed in the Nov. 8 hearing is not protected under student privacy and protection laws, as alleged by the district. 

The final component of Martin’s opinion ordered attorneys for both sides of the case to work together to “submit a proposed order consistent with this letter opinion.”