Tonja McCone, from left, Audra Kimball and Danny Thomas.
Tonja McCone, from left, Audra Kimball and Danny Thomas.

First in a series

Editor’s note: Descriptions of the sexual harassment/assaults in this story may be considered graphic in nature. 

Huntsville School District administrators say they not only were shocked to learn in February of alleged sexual assaults by basketball players, but they also didn’t understand the severity of what had been taking place.

“I honestly do not believe anyone understood how big what they were dealing with was,” Title IX Coordinator Tonja McCone said. The district began investigating and trying “to find out what was going on.”

As coaches began to interview basketball players, they learned of what students referred to as “baptisms.” Players were considered “baptized” when teammates physically restrained them while other players undressed and placed their bare genitals in or on the restrained players’ faces and foreheads. Players were also “bean-dipped,” which occurred when players placed their rectum on another player’s face or nose. 

“Baptisms” happened multiple times to at least eight players over the span of two basketball seasons. Some students who participated in “baptizing” during the 2020-21 season had also been “baptized” during the 2019-2020 season.

According to a parent whose child was in the locker room, some players stood in front of locker-room doors preventing players from leaving. Scared players would run and hide in the locker-room showers. Players would turn off the lights and when the lights came back on a player who had been “baptized” would be lying in the floor crying. 

“The lights were turned off and people were holding him down, and then, he had testicles on his head, mostly on his hair,” a parent said, describing what happened to her son.  

“Baptisms,” which took place after almost every game, would sometimes begin with a player throwing a shoe in the air and whomever it landed on would be baptized. Victims said the shoe was usually intended for certain, smaller players, who had less of a chance of defending themselves. 

A Title IX investigation into sexual harassment began Feb. 26, which was a first for the district. Title IX laws prevent discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Huntsville School District receives funeral funding and must comply with Title IX regulations. 

Decision-makers in the investigation recommended yearlong expulsions for two students, who admitted  “baptizing” teammates; five days out-of-school suspensions for three players, who allegedly restrained other players being “baptized;” and five days in-school suspension for one player. School board members went against those recommendations, lessening punishment for two players to a semester and throwing out completely out-of-school suspensions and bullying and sexual assault training for three players. Those players continue to play multiple sports and volunteered at peewee sports camps this summer. The player receiving five days in-school suspension completed his disciplinary action without appeal.

With information obtained through public records requests, Title IX documents, interviews with parents, players, school board members and administrators, The Record has pieced together events leading up to the investigations, as well as information pertaining to the Huntsville School District and school board’s decisions during and after those investigations. 

Huntsville School Superintendent Audra Kimball said on the advice of the school district’s attorney, Charles Harwell, she had no comment. 

In text messages, obtained through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, Huntsville School Board President Danny Thomas and Kimball acknowledged the allegations were serious and presented possible liability for those involved. They questioned how the secret was kept so long. 

“What I can’t understand is why those boys didn’t gang up and retaliate or tell somebody,” Kimball texted to Thomas the night of Feb. 22. Thomas learned of the accusations that day but Kimball had known of the allegations for nearly two weeks, since Feb. 9.

According to victims and parents who agreed to interviews on the condition of anonymity, ganging up or retaliating were not options. If it were that simple, perhaps “baptizing”  and “bean-dipping” wouldn’t have happened to at least eight players.

“They would have you restrained,” one victim said. “You could kick and stuff like that. They would sit on your legs and hold your arms down. They would hold your face up. There was no way” to fight back. “I just gave up.”

Victims said three students held players down, while one or two players would either “baptize” or “bean-dip” other players. According to a lawsuit filed Sept. 10 against the district by a parent acting on behalf of a victim, one player was “baptized” or “bean-dipped” 14 times – sometimes suffering both actions on the same night. 

One victim said he suffered bruising on his arms from being physically restrained. “I didn’t know where the bruises came from. It wasn’t like I was knocked against something,” at another time, the victim said. 

In an interview with The Record, McCone was surprised to hear about the bruising, which she said was not reported during the investigation. “I think if somebody bruised or held their face, why did parents not see it? Why would you not tell? I had never heard that allegation. That’s why I was surprised,” she said. 

Thomas is frustrated also by not knowing the information until being told during an interview with The Record. “We haven’t been brought this information.” 

He said he was unaware that players were pushed to the floor and had bruising. 

“Why would they not want to come to us and let us know everything that they’re able to tell someone else whenever they can tell someone that could do something about it or defend them?” he questioned.

Thomas said at the end of the investigatory interviews, all players were asked if they wanted the investigators to know anything else that had not been asked. “Almost every single one of them, except one or two, said nothing,” Thomas said.

One parent said she noticed the bruises and asked her son about them. She remembers him telling her “he had just been knocked around in a game,” rather than telling her he had been “baptized.”

“One victim was really mad after it happened one time,” at an away game, another player said.  A player remembers that the victim was “baptized” as the team was leaving the locker room about to get on the bus. “I felt really bad for him because he was not happy because they knocked him on the [concrete] floor [and he hit his head] and he had bruises from it.”

After being “baptized,” one player found a way to avoid it in the future. His mother said, “He would go in and grab his stuff as fast as possible and get out before any of the mayhem started.”

Keeping The Secret 

One victim felt that informing someone was not an option. According to a Title IX investigatory report, players who reported “baptisms,” were threatened that they would “get it worse.”

“Because the people who were doing it would threaten them,” according to a player.  And players didn’t want to be “baptized” again for “snitching” or for anything “worse” to happen to them. 

According to one player, he was asked by coaches during the investigation, “Why didn’t you come and tell us about this.” 

“My answer was that they would threaten us. I don’t know exactly, but they said it would be worse.” He said he was scared to tell someone.

One possible way, but not guaranteed, to possibly avoid being “baptized” was paying teammates not to do so, according to the Title IX investigatory report.  

Another way to avoid being “baptized,” would be if a coach was in the locker room. “It almost happened to me once,” a player said. “And I got so lucky because [Junior High School] Coach [Kaleb] Houston came into the locker room and wrote the pregame plan on the board. I got that lucky.” 

Coaches, they say, had no idea what was taking place in their locker rooms. 

“Our coaches have always had an open-door policy for anything like that,” Huntsville Athletic Director Tom McCollough said. “Anytime that there’s a problem that is bothering the student or player or parent for that matter, then they are welcome to come and talk with him, disclose whatever it is. There’s never been any indication that a kid can’t come and talk to a coach about anything. That’s part of who we are,” McCollough said.

The design of the locker room contributed to people not walking in during the acts.

The locker room is located behind bleachers of the student section in the Charles H. Berry gym. A door leads into a hallway that angles into the locker room, so when someone is coming in, he only sees a wall and not directly into the locker room. That is one place where a player stood on alert, blocking the door. The couch, “which is where it was [sometimes] done,” is in the middle of the locker room behind the hallway, so the couch can’t be seen from the doorway, a player said.  

Someone can hear a coach enter the hallway of the locker room before the coach could see what was going on. A former player said it was always easy to tell when the coaches were walking in.

A coach would usually spend five minutes or so in the locker room after a game, spend some time on the court talking to families, sometimes go to his office located on the opposite side of the gym, or watch the following high school basketball game. 

Nights in which Houston came into the locker room before the game saving a player from being baptized were rare. Houston mostly would come into the locker room after games or at half-time.  “He just talked about the game and then left,” a player said.

“He would stand outside, more like on the court, talking to the opposing team’s coach,” another player said. 

Houston resigned Aug. 2, just days before the beginning of this school year but after he had begun coaching summer practice sessions, writing in his resignation letter that he wanted to pursue a career in Real Estate.

“It has been a pleasure working for the Huntsville School District the last three years,” he wrote Kimball. “I love and respect Huntsville and want what is best for the school. … I feel like this decision is what is best for me and my family at this time,” Houston wrote. 

Houston told The Record in a text message that he did not know about “baptisms.”

One victim told The Record that he thought Houston knew. He recalled another player going to him about it, and Houston making the team run as punishment. Houston denies knowing anything about that particular incident. 

“I had no idea that any of that was going on in the locker room,” Houston texted.

Asked how that was possible, given that the alleged assaults took place over two seasons, Houston stated, “I have no more comments, thanks.”

Asked if any coaches knew, Thomas said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.”

“If anybody knew and didn’t say something or bring it to administration, whether it be principal, athletic director or another coach, then I’m very, very upset and disappointed in that,” he said. 

“I asked Audra (Kimball) to go directly to those coaches whenever I first heard about this and said, ‘Where were you at? What was going on? How’d you not know?” Thomas said. 

“Superintendent went and they said, ‘We absolutely did not know.’”

Thomas said he understands it’s hard for victims to speak out and tell the truth. 

“But as a school, we’re trying to protect all the kids regardless of what side of the fence they’re on. It’s about protecting the kids,” he said. “It’s an extremely unfortunate situation that has happened, but I don’t want any kid’s life ruined, or scarred for the rest of their lives, because of the situation.” 

The lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that Houston was informed by a student and a parent as early as October 2020 about the sexual assaults, but Houston, who is a mandated reporter, failed to investigate, take corrective action or call the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline.

“The Huntsville School District had knowledge that these children were being sexually assaulted and did nothing,” said Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who represents the parent and victim.

Even if the coaches didn’t fully realize what was going on, one parent said the school should be held accountable. “I think the school district needs to take some responsibility themselves for this. We entrust our children to go there everyday and to be safe. And there was this entire area that for several years, there was sexual abuse going on in there,” the parent said. 

“I feel like there should be some reprimanding there too. Like these locker rooms are your locker rooms. These children are your children. Where was your supervision?” 

Locker-room Monitoring 

Whether or not a coach should remain in the locker room has been a point of contention with some parents. 

“I was a coach for many years,” McCollough said. “And I was in and out of dressing rooms and when a kid is changing in the dressing room, it is an uncomfortable feeling to be in there. Not that a coach would stand there and watch a kid undress. You know, I don’t want imply that at all. It’s very uncomfortable. It’s just hard for a coach to be there that whole time while kids are dressing,” McCollough said.

Longtime School Board Member Duane Glenn also struggles with whether or not the coaches knew and how the secret could have been kept for two years.

“As far as the coaching part, as far as them being responsible for this, I hear two sides of it,” Glenn said. 

“A lot of people say, ‘There’s no way they didn’t know this.’ I’ve talked to other schools, other people. Usually after games, coaches go to their office. Pretty standard deal. So, on not being in the locker room, not knowing anything about this, if you’re a coach and you’re all the way across the gym in your office or you’re a parent and you’re sitting there at half-court and you’re waiting on your kid, you’re closer to that locker room than the coaches are. So those parents sat there, waiting. They don’t know what’s going on either. Now, is that the right answer? No. I wish it hadn’t happened,” Glenn said.

“And you know how people are, if that coach stood back there while they were getting dressed and other kids were taking a shower, they would come forward, and they’d say, ‘School board, that coach is a pervert. He sits back there and watches my kid.’ Now you think about that,” Glenn said.

One victim’s parent said he didn’t expect Houston to be in the locker room. Rather he appreciated that Houston would also spend time with players’ parents and guardians after the game.  

“I can’t tell you how many times, he’d come out of the locker room and he’d come talk to me and stuff about my son and basketball, stuff that coaches do. He’s more than a coach. He’s also a face of the team,” a victim’s parent said.

McCone, whose husband is Head Lady Eagles Basketball Coach Greg McCone, also said the coaches have more responsibilities than just staying in the locker rooms. They’ve been at practice since 7 a.m., they have to call in scores and lock up the gym and by that time it’s 8:30 p.m., she said.

“The coaches don’t just hide themselves in the office,” she said. The coaches are trying to go home after a long day, “just like everyone else.” 

Someone Finally Speaks Out 

The basketball season was coming to an end when word got out. A player mentioned to someone that he was ready for the season to be over; that he was tired of the “baptisms.” 

Because this person’s interest was piqued by the use of the term “baptism” for things going on in basketball, the person began asking around, trying to find out what “baptism” meant. A player explained.

The person, who chooses to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution to family members, asked, “What do I do with this? This has gone on for two years? How is this just getting out?”

Hearing allegations of alleged sexual assault and harassment stung.

“I’ve been in the victims’ shoes before in a similar situation, but nothing was done about it because there was no proof.” So this person knew saying nothing, ignoring the situation, continuing the secret-keeping was not an option. 

“And so, I called (Huntsville High School Principal) Roxanne (Enix) that night who was at a basketball game.” On Feb. 9, Enix was told the details of what had taken place, that it happened several times and that it happened to several players. She called McCollough, who called Kimball. 

“Roxanne did a fantastic job in my opinion of passing along the information and doing what was right,” the person said. “But whenever it went to the next step (the school board) is kind of whenever it all went to hell.”  

The person was stunned also that for two seasons no one said anything. “The only thing I can think of is that they were scared.”

Fearing your teammates is hard to understand. As a Huntsville Eagle “you always had your teammates back. … If your teammates are going through anything, you pick them up. If your teammates miss a free throw or a lay up, … you don’t rag on them on how bad they did, you pick them up.” 

Older players are supposed to be mentors, the person said. “They’re supposed to be some of your best friends.”

The person is not regretful of informing Enix, but hates “the reputation that the community has earned. I would have felt differently about it if it were dealt with correctly.”

Parents Alerted

At 10 p.m., on Feb. 9, a parent received a call from a friend and was “told my son had been a victim of sexual assault.” It was the first time hearing of “baptisms.” 

They asked their son what was going on. “He was scared he was in trouble. And this happened to him and he thought he was in trouble.” He told them about baptizing, that it had happened to him and some other boys. They asked who did it to him, and he gave them a list of the boys. He told them it happened to him more than once but other boys “got it worse.”

He told them it happened to him for the first time early in the season, “while the 7th grade boys watched.” Their son suffers from nightmares. 

Other parents found out by receiving a letter informing them of a Title IX investigation. 

One parent said she thought her son was being investigated. The letter gave “no information about what it is, what it involved and what had happened. Like nothing. And let me tell you, my house was hell that night. Hell,” she said. She showed her son the letter and asked what was going on. She said he couldn’t think of anything that he had done wrong. She told him, “It has to do with the basketball team and the locker room. … Immediately he knew what it was. Immediately.” 

She also received the Title IX investigatory report. “Reading this,” she said holding up the report and fighting back tears, “I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried because [the players’] answers, you could tell they were literally terrified of what was happening to them.

“I feel like the older boys started it, and they abused the younger ones, and then the younger ones abused the other ones. Like they’ve had enough time to go the full cycle of abuse in this situation,” she said. 

Other parents found out their children were victims during or sometime after interviews because players were hesitant, scared and ashamed. “I feel like these boys are just coming into becoming young men and their masculinity and that’s emasculating to have that done to them, you know,” a parent said. 

She said her son is withdrawn. “He’s got a small group of friends that had nothing to do with it. … He associates with them but no one else. He’s had an ongoing stomach issue.”

After the investigation began in late February, players began to send snapchats to “baptized” players. Snapchat is an app in which cell-phone messages automatically disappear after being opened. The only way to save the message is to take a screen shot.

And that is what one victim did. 

The message sought information about who “snitched.” One player said the same message was sent to multiple players who had been “baptized,” seeking information about who reported the incidents.

The message read, “Idc [I don’t care] if you told coach or not I just want to say that I’m sorry if you were ever scared of me or anything like that and I should have stepped in a stoped (sic) it and I feel bad for that so I apologized or (sic) not stepping in when I should have stoped (sic) it from happening to you.”

The victim replied that he wasn’t the one who told. The person alleged to have restrained him replied, “I just feel bad cause you don’t deserve that.” 

Another parent said her son was harassed with snapchats, asking what he was telling the interviewers and threatening him by saying he’d better not be telling.

Coaches Not Disciplined 

No coach or administrator has been placed on leave, disciplined or fired. Houston voluntarily resigned.  Assistant Junior High School Coach Tyler Trumbo, who retired this year, did not respond to calls or a text message seeking comment. Former Huntsville Eagle basketball player River Gosvener assumed head coaching duties for the junior high team in August. 

At this point in the investigations, Thomas said he doesn’t believe anyone on the staff should face disciplinary action. “At this particular moment, no.”

McCone also said even though the timing of Houston’s resignation was “terrible,” he had considered leaving the district for some time. “But, I do know things about his goals and what he had planned for the future, and I don’t think it was because of this,” said McCone, who has a close relationship with Houston and has known him for many years. 

“I think it could have impressed him like, ‘I’m going to go ahead and do what else I had in mind to do.’  I don’t think it’s like, ‘I did this. I’m getting out of here.’”

Many players regret that Houston resigned. Some players lamenting that he took the fall for the situation. Others noted that he was one of their favorite coaches. One former player said Houston was “easy to talk to,” had a good coaching morale and coaching skills, was hard working, and had “a lot of qualities you want to have in a coach.”

Parents have sympathy for Houston. 

“I think the blame is all being put on him because the superintendent and the A.D. were not going to take the blame,” a parent said.

One victim said he’s hopeful the new coaches can do better by the team by knowing what goes on in the locker room. 

The district sent a letter offering counseling services from Ozark Guidance Center.

In a text message in June, Thomas confirmed that the school offered counseling, and Kimball replied, “Yes, they had that offer and no one responded.”

“I’ve said, ‘I know someone at my church’” who could offer counseling “if they would feel better with a faith-based kind of person. I know a different church whose got that available, too,” McCone said.

“Two different times, in writing, it has been said if you would like the supportive measures offered to call me, contact me. Anytime I have spoken with parents, either the respondents or the complainants, I have always said we have these counseling (services) available, just let me know,” McCone said. 

But parents are reluctant. “I trust nothing, nothing,” a parent said.

Healing Begins

Recently, a victim said he was wearing a Huntsville Eagles T-shirt while in Fayetteville and someone from outside the community saw the shirt and asked about the situation. 

“He was like, ‘Did you know about the stuff?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I was one of the victims of it.’ And he told me to never quit fighting.”

This victim doesn’t regret speaking out. 

“People need to speak out about stuff. Don’t just keep it inside. You really need to talk to your parents about this.”

He also believes that the players involved in “baptizing” him, and his teammates should no longer have the privilege of wearing an Eagles uniform. He also believes the coaches and the district waited too long to act and that the punishment was not enough. 

He’s disappointed in how the school board handled the situation. Can the board make it right?

“I really don’t know if they can” he said. “They dug so deep a hole, there’s not a ladder tall enough to climb out of there.”