The Huntsville School District and School Board members admit that they mistakingly believed that they did not have to notify the media as required by law of an expulsion hearing concerning allegations of sexual assault by members of the Huntsville boys basketball program. 

The district and the board’s admissions were in a response to a lawsuit filed July 28 in Madison County Circuit Court by Witter resident Benjamin Rightsell. Rightsell alleges that the district failed to comply with open-meetings law under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when the district held an expulsion hearing on May 3 without notifying the press.

The hearings concerned the discipline of students who admitted to “baptizing” teammates. The players described “baptizing” as several players physically restraining teammates while other players undressed and placed their bare genitals in or on the restrained players’ faces. The incidents happened multiple times to several players over the span of two basketball seasons. 

During a Title IX investigation by the district into the junior high basketball team, two players admitted to baptizing their teammates. One member said he baptized other players because he had been baptized the preceding season.

The junior high investigation closed after the school board went against the recommended punishment of a year-long expulsion for two players who admitted to baptizing teammates. Rather, the board expelled the students for one semester. The board also went against the decision makers’ recommended punishment of five days out-of-school suspension for three students by not punishing those students at all. Those three students continue to play multiple sports and volunteered at peewee camps this summer. 

The Title IX investigation into the now high school players remains ongoing. The investigatory report was turned over last week to decision maker and Fayetteville attorney Brian Hogue. 

Even though the district and board members admit they failed to notify the press, they contend that even if the press were notified, it would not have been able to attend the discipline hearings, the district and board attorney Charles Harwell responded. 

However, the law allows press to attend the open part of the meetings in which the board votes on any punishment, according to Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who represents Rightsell. 

Arkansas law states that a parent must request a disciplinary meeting be closed. Because the press was not in attendance on May 3, it was not made aware of whether or not parents requested a closed portion of the meeting.

The district and board also admit not having a recording of the meeting. The law states that a recording of a meeting must be kept for at least one year. The board and district wrote in their response “there was a recording of the Board’s votes on those expulsions, although the camera where that recording was made has since automatically recorded over the meeting.” 

The district and board members also asked the court to strike parts of the allegations and exhibits, which included stories published in The Madison County Record, attached to Rightsell’s complaint by stating that stories about “baptizing” are “immaterial, impertinent and scandalous,” in regard to the district’s noncompliance with FOIA. 

In the next paragraph, Harwell states, “The discipline hearings were held in executive session … during which the board of education discussed disciplinary sanctions to be imposed on students involved in a Title IX investigation which included sexual assaults that occurred while students were members of the Huntsville Junior High boys’ basketball team.” 

Additional FOIA Violations Added To Lawsuit

On Tuesday, McCutchen amended the complaint in the lawsuit, adding the district violated the open-meetings law by holding several other meetings and not notifying the press. McCutchen stated that the district failed to notify the press, and thereby the public, of two other expulsion hearings, one held in August 2020 and the other held in February 2021.

The district also met on May 2 in which it held a training session for the Title IX expulsion hearing it held on May 3. The district failed to notify the press of either meeting. 

McCutchen also stated that the board met on April 2 without notifying the press in which it discussed millage revenue for an activity center currently under construction by the district. Voters passed a millage increase to build the activity center as well as two Career Technical Education Centers in 2019. The cost of the activity center is over budget by approximately $3 million and after the meeting in which the press was not notified, the board voted to issue bonds to cover the increased cost. 

McCutchen also stated that on April 2, 2021, Huntsville School Board President Danny Thomas polled school board members via text message about whether or not the district should lift a mask mandate in effect for the 2020-2021 year. Board members Terry Forsyth and Janeal Yancey, along with Thomas and Huntsville School District Superintendent Audra Kimball, chimed in with whether or not they would vote for the mandate to be lifted. Just 11 days later, board member Kevin Wilson moved to keep the mask mandate until April 30 and that if numbers are the same or better, the school would lift the mandate beginning on May 1, 2021. 

McCutchen wrote in the pleading, “These text messages demonstrate an obvious attempt by Director Thomas to poll the members on a matter that was foreseeable to come before the Board. Clearly, these are matters on which public input is necessary and this meeting conducted in a text message chain is not permitted by FOIA.”

Conflict Of Interest 

In the answer to the original complaint, Harwell did not address Rightsell’s allegations of a conflict of interest by board members. 

School Board member Lenora Riedel is related to someone involved in the Title IX investigations and one student filed an appeal stating that Riedel acted in a bias manner during the expulsion proceedings. 

On April 26, after Kimball sent a text message to board members asking who would be available on May 3 for an expulsion hearing, Riedel was the first to respond that she could attend. She texted, “I can be there on Tuesday for sure.” 

Kimball texted separately to Thomas, “Even though Harwell said he didn’t advise her being here, he said she could as a board member. 

“I don’t feel good about her voting in executive session if we go there,” Kimball texted Thomas an emoji face meaning “yikes.”

At the May 3 expulsion hearing that is the premise of the Rightsell’s lawsuit, Riedel recused herself from voting.

After the meeting was called to order, despite announcing she would not be deliberating or voting, Riedel stayed for the hearing, listening to all the testimony and evidence. Riedel then went into executive session with other board members.

“If you’re going to recuse, you don’t need to be back there listening to testimony,” McCutchen said referring to Riedel’s participation in executive session.

“We don’t have access to what comments she made – what part she played in this.  And then as I understand it, she came out and would not vote,” McCutchen said. 

“That has a definite odor to it.”

Even though only board members are allowed into executive session during an expulsion hearing, Kimball also went into executive session. Kimball said Harwell said she was allowed to attend. 

Another hearing was held on May 19, in which the press was notified. Riedel did not recuse at the May 19 hearing and again participated in executive session. 

It was at the May 19 hearing that the board modified its decision and shortened the expulsion of the two students from a year to a semester and threw out all recommended discipline for the other three students who appealed their recommended punishment.