Editor’s Note: This story quotes some graphic language.

Huntsville High School boys’ basketball players remain under a Title IX sexual harassment/sexual assault investigation for activities in the locker room during the past two seasons as two more formal complaints were recently filed.

These new complaints against senior high boys immediately follow a now closed Title IX investigation into the same locker-room activities. The closed junior high case was initially started as a sexual assault case but because the players performing “baptisms” didn’t have “sexual gratification,” as defined by new Title IX protocols, the closed junior high case was eventually handled as a sexual harassment case, according to Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix, who was also one of the decision makers. 

The new Title IX investigations are also in response to allegations that some junior high boys’ basketball players would “baptize” other players. According to multiple reports, both written and verbal, voluntarily provided to The Record by multiple people, the act of “baptizing” occurred when several players held down other teammates, mostly younger players, while other players undressed and then placed exposed sex organs in or on the restrained players’ faces. 

In the closed investigation, two players admitted to “baptizing” other players but placed blame on players now on the senior-high team for having done the same acts to them a year prior. That blame led to the new investigations and a new formal complaint was filed in May. Another complaint followed in June in which a victim alleges he was sexually assaulted. Those two complaints have been combined into the current investigation.

According to the parent of one of the victims, the incidents happened multiple times to several players. Some players were “baptized” more than 10 times. One parent said her son was held down by three students, while two others “baptized” him. 

In the new Title IX investigations, a student who admitted baptizing other students in the closed investigation, filed a formal complaint stating he had been baptized the year before by older players. 

Decision makers in the closed case – Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Huntsville Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Huntsville School District Athletic Director Tom McCollough – recommended expulsion for one year for two students who admitted baptizing players and out-of-school suspension for three players alleged to have restrained players. Huntsville School District Superintendent Audra Kimball concurred in their recommendations. 

“Due to the nature of the Title IX infraction, the principal did choose to ask for expulsion because the nature of the offense did not warrant anything less than an expulsion in her realm of reasoning and equity,” Enix said. 

Despite decision makers recommendations, after hearing testimony and reviewing evidence, including victim statement letters, Huntsville School Board members said evidence was not sufficient to uphold the punishment and it voted to expel two students for one semester, rather than a year. That final vote acted to close the case. 

They also threw out punishment for three students, including participating in Arkansas Athletic Association Conduct Training and Title IX Bullying and Sexual Harassment training, resulting in no punishment for those students.

In order to protect the anonymity of the players, The Record has chosen not to identify the parents.

New Complaints

The new complaint states:  “After the coaches left the locker room some of the basketball players would throw a shoe up in the air and whoever it landed on would be held down on the couch after some games. Other players would hold that person down and … would baptize them. Baptism is placing one’s balls on their face. They told them if they told they would beat their ass.  After the first investigation against the 8/9 graders … approached … at school and verbally apologized. The same day … snapchatted … and asked ‘are your parents pressing charges.’”

It also stated that at the end of the season, one of the players who had baptized other players stated he was “passing the torch down” to another student, who was called the “ballmaster.”

The complaint also stated that after the first investigation began, a student overheard  players “coming up with a story they would have to keep from getting into trouble.”

During these now ongoing investigations, Tammy Tucker, associate superintendent for administrative services at the Fayetteville School District, conducted the interviews. 

According to parents whose children were interviewed, Tucker’s investigatory questions were more extensive than the questions asked in the closed investigation. 

In the previous case, the interviewers asked “yes” or “no” questions. In the ongoing case, the interviews have been more extensive. It was during these more recent extensive interviews that more players admitted to being victims.

“She asked very open-ended questions and follow-up questions to go with that,” a parent of a victim said. “We were probably in there 15 to 20 minutes with her.” 

The interviews conducted in the now closed investigation were by St. Paul Principal Bruce Dunlap, Huntsville Senior High School Boys’ Basketball Coach Grant Myrick and Huntsville Junior High School Basketball Coach Kaleb Houston. Those interviews were “quick and to the point,” a parent said.

“Coach Houston looked heartbroken sitting there as he was hearing the answers,” the parent said. 

Sexual Harassment vs. Sexual Assault

When the initial Title IX complaint in the now closed investigation was filed, the district stated in reports that the complaint was for sexual harassment. In follow-up paper work, the district stated that the investigation was for sexual harassment/sexual assault. 

“The definitions of sexual harassment and sexual assault are defined a bit differently” under the new Title IX protocol that was implemented in August 2020, Enix said.

Under the Huntsville High School handbook guidelines, sexual harassment is considered a serious infraction. On the other hand, sexual assault is a severe infraction and results in an immediate 10-day out-of-school suspension that could also include a recommendation for expulsion.

“The incident falls under the Title IX guidelines and penalties and is deemed as severe,” Enix said.

Because those performing “baptisms” were not deemed to have “sexual gratification,” the case was eventually classified as sexual harassment, according to Enix.

“Sexual assault is deemed ‘to have sexual gratification’ by the victimizer,” Enix said. “Decision makers did not believe the evidence/testimonies indicated sexual gratification from the two boys who admitted to the incident,” Enix stated. 

“I’m sure that you would agree that there are levels of sexual harassment and a ‘pinching of someone on the behind’ is not comparable to what a Title IX decision of more severity would be,” Enix stated. 

Enix said the decision makers used a policy that states that after the investigation is complete, any student found by the evidence to be more likely than not to have engaged in sexual harassment will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including expulsion. 

In addition, the Huntsville School Board is allowed to expel a student for a period longer than ten school days for conduct that is deemed to be of such gravity the suspension would be inappropriate. 

Despite those recommendations by Enix and the other decision makers, the board stated after an appeal hearing that based upon new evidence presented, the punishment is too severe for the “first offense.”

It appears the reference to first offense by the board refers to a list of offenses commonly used in regard to sexual harassment regarding bullying. 

“If this had been deemed a bullying issue, this would have been the protocol followed,” Enix said. “Under the guidance of our people in Little Rock, this was deemed a Title IX concern by collaborative effect and not a bullying incident.” 

The handbook does not refer to degrees of offenses in Title IX protocols. 

“The decision makers believe that the gravity of the offense by the two admittances of the incidence in question warranted expulsion because suspension, even OSS [out-of-school suspension] was an inappropriate punitive measure,” Enix stated. “Please also note that the Huntsville High School principal will always recommend 365 calendar days expulsion in an effort to promote equality among her students during an expulsion hearing,” she said.

Enix explained the decision makers reasoning in recommending out of school suspension for three players.

“In reference to the boys who were deemed as partakers in the incidents as ‘restrainers’ the decision makers believe that Out of School Suspension was appropriate for the punitive measures. The decision makers used the Title IX guidelines and training as their measure in determining the penalties,” she said.

After the appeals hearing, the board said, “Due to the complexity of the allegations and evidence presented the board felt it was not sufficient to uphold the determination.”

School Board
Member’s Conflict
of Interest

Parents have expressed concern about the ongoing investigation if it leads to additional expulsion hearings. They feel that a school board member has a conflict of interest.

In the first expulsion hearing, School Board Member Lenora Riedel recused, but in the appeal from that hearing, she voted. 

At a specially called board meeting on May 3, Riedel stated she would not be deliberating or voting on the recommended punishments. Despite recusing, Riedel participated in executive session with the board where she was able to hear and review testimony and reports as well as discussions.  

It was at the first expulsion hearing that the board upheld the decision makers recommendations.

The students appealed. 

One appeal stated that the decision was biased and that the student did not expect a certain board member to be present “as suggested by the school lawyer. She is (related to a student involved). She was at the hearing and saw all the evidence and reports and listened to the executive session. When we arrived at the meeting we saw her and she stated that she was not voting but she was allowed to hear the conversation and attend the voting that was done in private. We feel like a lot of questions couldn’t be asked and answered in front of her and it was awkward because she is a family member to (a student involved) and is also a friend of our family.”

The student stated that he “felt uncomfortable” and “like we couldn’t tell the whole story in front of her. We fell like the decision was biased because she was there.”

At a specially called appeals hearing on May 19, Riedel changed her mind and did not recuse from voting. She also participated in executive session. She voted in favor of throwing out the punishment for the students who were given out-of-school suspension. However, she voted against the motion to lessen the length of the expulsions, not because she thought the students should be expelled for one year, but rather she thought the expulsions for one semester were too severe. 

“My opposition was not against modifying the expulsion, but was merely against the proposed punishment. My reasoning was based on the school’s handbook, which could’ve offered a lesser punishment based on the offense,” Riedel previously stated to The Record.

“She should have excused herself and not even been in there because you can influence by their presence,” a parent of the victim said. “She’s there. She’s sat on the board for a while. She knows these people personally and you’re staring people down as they’re talking about your relative or things that are going to affect him eventually. That’s influential.” 

Riedel did not respond to questions as to why she recused in one hearing but not in the appeals hearing or whether she plans to attend any executive sessions or recuse should hearings take place in the ongoing investigations. 

Some parents wonder what happened between the expulsion hearings and the appeals hearings to make the board members suddenly change their votes, lessening and throwing out punishment. 

“I kind of wonder if they knew this next complaint was coming and wanted to set a precedent to help protect (the kids being investigated),” a parent of a victim said. “I wonder about that because through this whole process, you know, it was said that nothing can be done with the 10th graders because this formal complaint is just against the junior high basketball team.

“Well, that is when the other parent went and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll put in a formal complaint then against them and that’s going to trigger a whole other Title IX investigation against them.’

“And I wonder if they found out that that formal complaint was getting ready to be filed. I’m not saying that that’s what it was but … I know the way things work around here.”