This second story in a series looks at the Huntsville School Board’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Last month, The Record focused on the victim’s story as a first in the series.

In February, the Huntsville School District began the first of two Title IX investigations: one on behalf of the 2020-21 junior high basketball team and another after individual players filed complaints for actions during the 2019-20 season. The investigation into the 2020-21 season ended in May. The 2019-2020 investigation remains ongoing.

Through public records, Title IX documents, hours of interviews with parents, students and administrators, and text messages between board members, The Record has pieced together events leading up to the investigations as well as the district and school board actions. 

 

In early February a record 18 inches of snow blanketed the Ozark Mountains closing Huntsville School District buildings. Two weeks later, when roads cleared, students returned. For some students, school provided a free meal and a safe place.

For other students, for two years, safety was an illusion. 

On Feb. 9, as the storm moved in, someone in the community called Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix, who was attending an Eagles basketball game at Gravette.  The person informed Enix of what basketball players called “baptisms,” which occurred when several players physically restrained teammates while other players undressed and placed their genitals in or on the restrained players’ faces, foreheads or in their hair. Players were also “bean-dipped,” which occurred when players placed their rectum on another player’s face or nose. These acts happened to multiple players on multiple occasions during two basketball seasons.

The person calling Enix requested anonymity from The Record out of fear of retribution. Enix said at first she didn’t understand what the person was saying, what “baptizing” was and the severity of it, but after comprehending, she said she felt physically ill. 

That night, she called Director of Athletics Tom McCollough.

“Honestly who would ever think something like this was happening?” McCollough said. “It just absolutely still just blows my mind that this did happen.”

McCollough then called Huntsville School District Superintendent Audra Kimball.

Due to the snowstorm, the district would not act on the allegations for two weeks. Arkansas law requires mandated reporters to immediately report incidents to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline.

Despite being asked repeatedly, Kimball, who is a mandated reporter, said she does not remember an exact date or a timeframe when she called the hotline and referred all questions for this article to the school district’s attorney, Charles Harwell. Harwell did not respond to emails asking when the district called the hotline. 

“I looked to find the date of the call but I could not find it in my records,” District Title IX Tonja McCone said.  “I do know 100% that the call was made because I sat in Mrs. Kimball’s office while her and Mrs. Enix provided the information to the hotline.”

In the Title IX report in the 2020-21 investigation sent to parents, in regard to calling the child abuse hotline, the district stated that it had “consulted with the school lawyer regarding this and also spoke with the school resource officer,” but it did not state the hotline was called. 

The first official hotline call that The Record can verify was not made until March. 

Huntsville School Board President Danny Thomas said it would be an innocent mistake if the district failed to immediately call the hotline. 

“We’ve all tried to do the very best we could with what we’ve had and tried to do the right thing by these kids. But it definitely doesn’t seem to be coming out that way that we have” he said. 

When asked why the school potentially delayed calling, Thomas said, “Isn’t that probably the right thing to do is to gather the information to find out what’s going on before you start jumping the gun?”

Thomas said he did not know Kimball had known since Feb. 9 when he texted her the night he found out – Feb. 22. 

“When I found out, I called my superintendent, tried to follow procedure on what I thought we should do and they should to be on top to it,” Thomas said. 

The Record obtained text messages between Kimball, Thomas, and other school board members. 

“I’m sure you’re aware of evidently some serious matters going on with the junior high boys in the locker room situation. There’s a storm on the horizon over this I’m afraid. We can talk about it tomorrow but sounds pretty bad,” Thomas texted to Kimball Feb. 22. 

“Yes, I’m very aware. Tom [McCollough] is on top of it. They started investigating today. As a mom, I’d be pissed too!” Kimball texted back.

“My understanding is some parents are ready to or going to have an attorney,” Thomas responded. “Have you heard that. As a parent I would be the same exact way. Pissed off and I don’t know that I would be able to be talked to about it. … As far as I’m concerned I don’t care about whose kids they are that we’re (sic) doing those things. Their ass’s need to be out of there,” Thomas texted.

Thomas let Kimball know “Three different parents sent word to me.”

“What I can’t understand is why those boys didn’t gang up and retaliate or tell somebody,” Kimball texted back.

Thomas replied, “Well there’s no excuse for that. That is crossing several lines and the reality part of it is if those parents wanted to get an attorney, it’s a slam dunk I would think on those kids that did it and their parents would have to deal with the consequences in my opinion. It’s just about as bad as if they brought a gun to school. And what coach and where was he at when all this has been going on. I understand one kid said it happened to him 11 times,” Thomas texted.

“After the games they won after the coach left the locker room. [Junior High School head] Coach [Kaleb] Houston,” Kimball texted back. “Send me the parents names and I will call them and assure them it’s being dealt with. I assure you Tom took it very serious. It won’t be swept under the rug,” Kimball stated. 

Families said Kimball never contacted them.

Houston stated that he knew nothing about what was taking place in the locker rooms. He resigned on Aug. 2, just days before the school year began but after summer basketball practices had begun.

Thomas did not inform board members. “No, I was instructed not to by the attorney,” he said. “The situation is that Mr. Harwell felt like it was best that I was to stay completely silent on the situation with the rest of the board and not inform the board of anything until all the investigation part was taking place and so that’s the reason we just keep it the way it was,” Thomas said. 

Lucas Harder, policy services director of the Arkansas School Board Association, said Thomas acted appropriately by not divulging the information. 

“Because generally school board members are not supposed to receive information except for when it comes to them through appropriate channels,” Harder said. “In order for them to act as finder of fact and a jury effectively, they need to not have received information outside of the hearing so that they can take disciplinary actions at that time.” 


Investigation Underway


Beginning Feb. 22 and for the next three days, McCollough, Houston and High School Basketball Coach Grant Myrick questioned students.

But after overhearing a private conversation between Kimball and McCollough, McCone intervened. 

“I said, ‘Hang on a minute,’” McCone interjected. “‘That could be one of our new Title IX situations. Don’t do anything else at this point. Let’s find out what’s going on.’” McCone called the Arkansas Department of Education Office Equity Assistance Center.

Title IX laws prevent discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Because the district receives federal funding, it must comply with Title IX regulations.


Riedel’s Texts


Board Member Lenora Riedel texted Kimball on March 2 that a relative had received a letter about “an 8th grade basketball player and a lawsuit.”

Kimball replied that she was aware of the situation and that it “falls under Title IX so we have to send out that letter.”  Kimball responded that would she call. 

At the end of March, Riedel texted Kimball asking if her relative could come look at the “evidence” at the district office. Kimball texted, “Yes, Tonja [McCone] has all that in her office. I will let her know [the relative] is coming.”

On April 7, the Final Investigative Report was sent to parents and were told they had 10 days to respond to the report. 

At the end of April, Riedel texted one page of the 30-page investigatory report showing some students stating “baptisms” didn’t happen to them. Riedel texted, “This right there. Cut and dry,” and that she was “just upset.” 


Investigation Complete


The investigation took place from Feb. 22 through March 10. Fifty-three boys in 8th, 9th and 10th grades were questioned. Forty-seven said they knew of “baptizing.” Two confessed to “baptizing” teammates. Seven said they were “baptized.” Five informed investigators who baptized them. Overall, the evidence consistently pointed to players suspected of “baptizing.”  Two players confessed, while the others denied it.

On April 29, parents were given a determination or responsibility report in which decision makers recommended expulsion for two players who admitted “baptizing” other players; out-of-school suspension for three students, who allegedly physically restrained players; and five days in-school suspension for another player. 


May 3 Hearing


Based upon the decision-makers’ recommendations, on May 3, the board held an expulsion hearing, which was riddled with irregularities. Kimball failed to notify the press and record the meeting, violating the open-meeting laws.

As board members entered the administration building, they were given a copy of the investigatory report for the first time.  The report was largely the same as the one sent to parents. Each player was identified by grade level and a letter. However, board members’ packets identified players by name.

Irregularities also occurred during executive session. 

Approximately 30 minutes before the meeting, Kimball texted Thomas that she was worried about Riedel attending the hearing and going into executive session. 

Despite announcing she would not deliberate or vote, Riedel listened to testimony and evidence and went into executive session.

Even though no law prevents Riedel’s participation, recused board members traditionally don’t participate in hearings. 

“They’re not supposed to know that a student is being investigated so that when it comes to them, there’s not prejudgment bias that could be challenged against the school board,” Harder of the school board association said.

“In our training, it’s certainly our recommendation that anytime there’s any potential, even a perceived conflict of interest, regardless of whether there’s actively one there, it is ideal to the extent possible that a board member would recuse themselves certainly from the hearing where that is determined but they should also not be directly involved in a potential situation,” Harder said.  

Though only board members are allowed into executive session during expulsion hearings, Kimball participated, citing Harwell saying she was allowed. 

According to Kristin Garner, legal counsel for the Arkansas School Board Association, superintendents cannot participate in private deliberations of expulsion hearings with the board. 

The board voted 3 to 1 to concur with the decision-makers’ recommendation.

“The way I look at it is like these boys, they admitted it,” longtime school board member Duane Glenn said, who was the only board member to vote against a year-long expulsion. “If you have two kids that tell the truth and they get maximum punishment, what happens with those kids you end up having to prove or have the proof that they were lying. They get the same thing?

“I guess what I’m saying, ‘Do you think anybody should maybe get a little more fair shake if you tell the truth.’ If you don’t, why not lie?” Glenn said. 

Thomas also respects their honesty. “You take those 14-15 year-old kids, you know, and under the pressure that they was under to have to stand up and tell the truth, it had to be pretty difficult. I promise you.”

The following day, Kimball texted Thomas that the decision to accept the decision-makers recommendation for a year-long expulsion was the hardest of her career but that it was the correct decision. 

Kimball then texted, “I hope another gal was listening closely, but I doubt it because she called me today.”

Thomas agreed. “I was afraid that might happen with the phone call.”

That day, Riedel had sent Kimball a message asking Kimball to call. 

Just two days later, Kimball was still concerned about Riedel’s attendance and told Thomas she had talked to Harwell again. 

“He said there is nothing you nor I could have done to stop Lenora. She can be there as a board member. … He said the only thing would be for you or other board members to publicly shame her and tell her it’s a bad idea.”


Appeals Filed


Four students filed appeals. 

Three appeals used identical language, claiming the school violated handbook policy by allowing initial interviews to be conducted “without written notification, including sufficient details, being provided to parents of respondent which denied the respondent’s right to have enough time to prepare a response.” 

The other student appealed claiming one board member’s bias. The appeal stated he 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.” The student said he “felt uncomfortable” and “like we couldn’t tell the whole story in front of her.”

Kimball was worried that Riedel would also attend appeals hearings. 

On May 19, Kimball texted Riedel, “Lenora, I just wanted to touch base. Those appeals are tonight starting at 6:00. I went to check and you didn’t respond and I don’t want you to feel like I’m leaving you out but the lawyer has advised that you not be involved. I hate this.”

Riedel replied, “Well according to my lawyer, I can be there. And I plan to be there. If Charles [Harwell] wants to call me, I’ll be at [Attorney] John Everett’s office at 10 a.m. and I’ll be glad to talk to him.”

Thomas said as board president, he has no control over who participates in voting and recusing is a personal choice. 

“I was in a conversation with Lenora, myself and the attorney whenever he was explaining to her the situation. And, she can be involved. She can be a part of it. … As a board we cannot keep her from participating if she chooses,” Thomas said.

“I feel very sorry for Lenora in this situation. She is in a  very difficult position,” Thomas said.


New Evidence


Before the appeals hearings began, Harwell sent a memo to the board and offered a script telling Thomas exactly what to say. 

Harwell scripted that Thomas announce the board had been training in Title IX procedures. The Board had attended an hour-long training on May 2 for the first time. 

Thomas recognized the board was not familiar with the new Title IX regulations. 

“We didn’t know anything about Title IX,” Thomas said. “So we was like having to learn on the run kind of figuring out what we was supposed to do, when we was supposed to do it and how we was supposed to do it,” Thomas said. 

New evidence presented at the appeals hearings on May 19 had an impact. 

On appeal, Thomas took into account testimony that some of the boys participating in “baptizing” had also been “baptized” the previous year. 

“Some of the things that I heard at the appeal made me maybe have a different perspective on some of it,” McCone said. “It did not change my mind that this is not appropriate. This should not have happened. This is not what you want happening when you’re supposed to be getting your clothes on—getting ready. But it did change my perspective a little bit.”

In executive session, Riedel argued that the players should be punished under the bullying policy, outlined in the Huntsville High School Handbook, which allows for three days out-of-school suspension for first offenders. 

Glenn disagreed. “To me this is a totally different deal than a first time offense,” he said. “I think there’s a big difference between first offense of being tardy and first offense of this Title IX.”

Enix said the bullying policy shouldn’t apply to the Title IX case. “This was deemed a Title IX concern … and not a bullying incident.” Title IX states that any “student who is found by the evidence to more likely than not to have engaged in sexual harassment will be subjected to disciplinary action up to and including expulsions,” Enix said.

After reconvening from executive session at 4 a.m., the board voted to lessen the punishment from a year to a semester and to throw out completely the punishment of the three students who had allegedly physically restrained students. 

Riedel was the only one to vote against the motion. “My opposition was not against modifying the expulsion,” she previously wrote in a text message to The Record, “but was merely against the proposed length of punishment. My reasoning was based on the school’s handbook, which could’ve offered a lesser punishment based on the offense.” 

The next morning, Kimball updated Harwell on the outcome of the hearing. Harwell texted Kimball,  “For what it’s worth I agree on the grant of the appeals on the last three. They all were credible.”

The board has faced intense backlash for its decisions to lessen and throw out the punishment. Students and parents have protested at school board meetings and vocalized their frustrations toward the board’s leniency. Victims have stated that they don’t feel the district has listened to them. A petition is circulating seeking signatures that asks for the school board members to resign.

Kimball has texted Thomas her frustration, lamenting the optics of the situation. But, she also reassures Thomas that the situation will end. 

“This will pass, like a kidney stone, but it will pass,” Kimball texted Thomas.

The investigation into players during the 2019-2020 season who deny involvement was complete August 24, 2021, and handed over to an outside decision maker, Fayetteville attorney Brian Hogue.