The Record expressed its opposition to the Huntsville School District’s motion for a gag order in a lawsuit filed by a parent alleging the district knew about sexual assaults in the boys locker room for two years but did nothing to report or stop them, thereby allowing her son to become a victim. 

Last week, The Record filed a motion to intervene in that lawsuit not to litigate the facts of the case, but to argue that the court should not issue limits on pre-trial publicity. We want you to hear directly from us why we took that action.

We believe in holding the school board and administrators accountable as well as the community’s right to know that alleged sexual assaults happened in their schools. 

We are not asking to litigate the facts of the case concerning the alleged sexual assaults.

Our job is to inform the community of the allegations and allow victims and others involved in the investigations the opportunity to tell their stories and to ask the district to keep the community informed of what is taking place in their schools. The proposed gag order will harm the victims, who came to us to tell their stories because they felt invisible to the district. 

We are asking the court to allow its proceedings to remain open and not operate under a cloak of secrecy. 

These investigations began in secrecy with the district not notifying the press, and thereby the public, of the first expulsion hearing. When we were notified of the appeals hearings – in which the students’ punishment was lessened or thrown out completely – we showed up to cover the hearing but were not allowed in. The district told us it was to protect students’ privacy. 

Attorney for the district, Charles Harwell, sent Superintendent Audra Kimball an email advising Kimball should acknowledge that The Record is entitled to know of the expulsion proceedings but that, “if the parent or guardian has requested it to be private, neither she nor her reporter will be allowed in the meeting room at the start of the meeting.”

However, the press is entitled to be in the meeting as it is called to order, but if a parent requests the meeting be closed, then a reporter must leave. 

The irony is that our reporter who wasn’t allowed into the hearing opened the door for the student appealing and his family. We still maintained the student’s privacy by not identifying him in our reporting. 

The media is now being notified of expulsion hearings and allowed into the hearings. At a recent expulsion hearing, a parent requested an open meeting. Even then, we didn’t identify the student being expelled. 

But just as we made headway, the district’s attorneys decided to double down, seeking other reasons or excuses to operate in secrecy.

We strongly disagree and therefore we asked our attorneys to file a motion to intervene. 

The public has a right to know of administrators’ and board members’ decisions. Why wasn’t the press notified of the expulsion hearings? When was the hotline called? What is being done to implement security measures to prevent sexual assaults? What is the school board doing to prevent these assaults from happening again? Was disciplinary measures adjudicated and implemented fairly? What board members had a conflict of interest and how was that handled? Why did a board member with a potential conflict of interest recuse herself from voting but remain to hear all the testimony and evidence? Why did the superintendent attend an executive session dealing with expulsions, which is not allowed by law? 

Just this week, the National Hockey League apologized to a player who had suffered sexual assault while a member of the league. Huntsville basketball players allegedly sexually assaulted other players for two seasons before and after games. But rather than apologizing to victims, the district seeks to hide proceedings of this investigation. 

The district alleges a gag order is needed to provide privacy to the students involved. We agree that students’ privacy is needed. That is why we have not printed the names of any of the students involved in the investigations but continue to do our best to hold administrators and school board members accountable for their actions in these investigations.

 

This statement published in the Nov. 4 edition of The Record on the Editorial page.