Attendance at depositions in an ongoing Title IX lawsuit against the Huntsville School District will be limited to students, their parents and attorneys, and plaintiff and her attorneys, and unredacted transcripts of the depositions will be sealed, according to an order filed last Friday by U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks. 

The order is in response to a motion filed by the district arguing that following an identification key designed by the court to protect student identities in the case would be cumbersome and “unnaturally stifle the exchange between questioner and witness.”

The district asked the court to close proceedings to everyone but to those being questioned, their counsel and parties to the case and to retain control of the release of the unredacted deposition transcripts outside of court filings and proceedings.

In its motion, the district stated “excluded witnesses should not be permitted to read or otherwise be informed about earlier deposition testimony.”

Last week, after the plaintiff informed the court that she did not object to the motion, the court granted the motion and signed the order.

The Title IX lawsuit was filed by a parent in U.S. District Court, Western Division, in September 2021 after the parent alleged that her child suffered injuries during the 2020-21 basketball season when he was sexually abused by teammates multiple times on multiple occasions. The parent alleges that the district was alerted to the ongoing abuse but did nothing to prevent it, failed to promptly investigate the reports and therefore created a hostile learning environment, which denied her son the right to fair educational opportunities.

In February 2021, a Title IX investigation began into alleged sexual assaults by members of the boys’ basketball program. Another Title IX investigation began in May. Both investigations are complete: Two students were expelled for a semester for their actions in the case, while other students were not disciplined. The Huntsville School Board also threw out punishment completely for three students alleged to have physically restrained teammates being assaulted. 

The investigations stem from allegations that boys’ basketball team players sexually assaulted teammates by placing their bare genitals in or on the restrained players faces, foreheads and hair after games. 

The incidents happened multiple times to several players over the span of two basketball seasons.

As a part of the lawsuit and in response to heightened media attention, the district in November 2021 filed a motion for a gag order essentially asking the court to prevent parties from commenting to the media or posting on social media about the case. The school district also asked the court to seal the case in its entirety.

In response to the motion for a gag order, The Madison County Record intervened in the case to ask the court to allow the proceedings to remain open.

The court denied the motion for a gag order and to seal the record. Instead, the court  crafted a system in which it protected the public’s right to access judicial proceedings while balancing student privacy rights. In that regard, rather than naming the students, the court fashioned an identification key – accessible only to attorneys and the judge – for parties to use in identifying students involved in the case.

It is that identification key that the district called impractical for use in depositions. In its motion, the district wrote, “Either party should be permitted to ask questions using students’ names and seek answers which include students’ names.” 

The court has scheduled a settlement conference for Sept. 15 and set a jury trial for February 2023. 

The district does not deny players were alleged to have been sexually abused by teammates for two years but it denied having knowledge of the incidents and therefore being responsible for the abuse. 

In an earlier answer to the lawsuit, the district stated that any legal actions should be directed toward third parties – students who sexually abused their teammates – rather than the district.