A parent sued the Huntsville School District and board members in Madison County Circuit Court today for violating the state’s open-meetings law by not notifying the media of a May 3 expulsion hearing for two Huntsville students involved in a Title IX sexual assault/sexual harassment investigation.

The lawsuit also claims a school board member with a conflict of interest participated in proceedings regarding the investigations.

Witter resident Benjamin Rightsell, who has students in the Huntsville School District, filed the lawsuit stating that the board violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“We want full transparency and we want the public to be fully informed because ultimately our goal is the safety of these young people and these children,” Joey McCutchen, attorney for Rightsell, said.

The law states the school district must notify the media of special or emergency meetings at least two hours in advance so that the public can have representatives present.

“We want the questions answered. We’re going to take depositions and we’re going to see what happened in these situations where you have a board president acting like he doesn’t know that this is a violation of FOIA,” McCutchen stated.

For past two years, Huntsville boys basketball players allegedly sexually assaulted teammates in the locker room after games. Those players who were allegedly sexually assaulted were considered “baptized.”

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

An anonymous formal Title IX complaint was filed Feb. 25 on behalf of the junior high school boys basketball team.

Two students admitted “baptizing” teammates. One student stated that he did so after he was “baptized” during the previous basketball season. Other students pointed to boys who were members of the high school team last season as baptizing them during a previous season. The investigation into the high school basketball team remains ongoing.             

After the junior high investigation, decision makers — High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Director of Athletics Tom McCollough —  recommended expelling two students for one year and three students for five days of out-of-school suspension.

The board held a hearing on May 3 to consider the expulsion recommendations, but failed to notify the media.

The lawsuit also states the district violated FOIA by not recording the meeting. The law requires that meetings be recorded.

The complaint also addresses a conflict of interest by Lenora Riedel, who is related to a student involved in the investigations.

At the beginning of the May 3 hearing, despite recusing from voting, Riedel deliberated in executive session.

The board voted to accept the recommendation of the decision makers and expel the two students for one year.

The two students appealed.

Appeals hearings were held on May 19 and the media was notified.

The board reconsidered the expulsion of the two students as well as appeals from the three students recommended for out of school suspension.

Riedel did not recuse at the May 19 hearing and again participated in executive session.

The board modified its decision and shortened the expulsion of the two students from a year to a semester and threw out the five days of out-of-school suspension for the three students alleged to have physically restrained players.

FOIA violation

 

McCutchen said he wants the board to understand the seriousness of violating FOIA and be trained in the law.

“There’s no more serious matter than when our children are being sexually abused,” McCutchen stated. 

“I want the judge to say in very specific terms that the Huntsville Board of Education and the Huntsville School District violated FOIA with regard to specifically not notifying the media,” he said. 

“Number two, recording all public board meetings as it required by the rule of law under our FOIA. I want a provision that says they will not let this happen again.”

“And number three, I want the board members to be trained in open records and open meeting provisions of our FOIA law,” McCutchen said.

“Because you have a school board president [Danny Thomas] making irresponsible statements that he didn’t know how this violated FOIA — that’s a real problem,” McCutchen said.

“I definitely do not know where or how we did anything wrong at the moment,” Thomas has stated after he was asked about the FOIA violation.

“If we did, it was completely an oversight or accidental,” he said. “You know we wouldn’t do that on purpose.”

Kimball admitted she failed to notify the media and record the meeting, but she said it was unintentional and an “honest mistake.”

“I can tell you it’s all been a very stressful situation. I have to own my mistake because I can’t find proof of it. I have to own the recording too,” Kimball said.

“I say that ignorance is no excuse for violating a rule of law,” McCutchen said.

“What if we have a bank robber who says, ‘Oh, I didn’t know we couldn’t rob banks’ and claims ignorance. Ignorance is no excuse, and I use that term ‘excuse’ because that’s what this is,” McCutchen said.

Conflict of Interest

 

The lawsuit also claims that Riedel has a conflict of interest and should not have participated in the Title IX board hearings or executive sessions.

“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. That has a definite odor to it.”

At the May 19 appeals hearing, Riedel changed course and did not recuse. She again participated in executive session.

She voted against modifying the expulsion from a year to a semester because she felt the semester was also too long.

“I think that that is a miscarriage of justice for her to not recuse,” McCutchen said.

“Not only are we looking at the civil aspects of this but we’re also going to explore the criminal aspects,” McCutchen said.

The law also states that a “person who negligently violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.”

The Record did not receive a response after reaching out to Thomas and Kimball for comment.

The Record will update this story.