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Huntsville parents rip School Board over hazing case

Punishment lightened for instigators by CELIA KRETH AND ELLEN KRETH, MADISON COUNTY RECORD | June 18, 2021 at 7:32 a.m.
A sign labeling it as the "Crossroads of the Ozarks," welcomes visitors to Huntsville in Madison County. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette FILE PHOTO)

HUNTSVILLE -- Parents yelled at board members after a recent Huntsville School Board meeting during which President Danny Thomas applauded the board for its handling of a Title IX sexual harassment/sexual assault investigation.

"You should be ashamed of every single one of yourselves," a relative of a victim in the Title IX investigation shouted at board members after the meeting adjourned.

Thomas refused to let people speak during Monday's meeting, saying they weren't on the agenda.

Emotions at the meeting were running high after an article published in The Madison County Record last week detailed the board's reduction of the suggested punishment for two students and the reversal of the punishment for three other students in the Title IX investigation.

The investigation stemmed from allegations that some junior high boys basketball players would "baptize" other players. The act of "baptizing" occurred when players restrained mostly younger teammates while others undressed and then placed exposed private body parts in or on the restrained boys' faces, according to written and verbal reports provided to the Record by several people who asked not to be named.

"I'm going to say that I'm very proud of this board and this community and this faculty and this staff," Thomas said during the meeting.

Board members donate hours of their time and try to do what they feel is best for the community, he said. Thomas added Superintendent Audra Kimball worked hard during the investigation. He said negative comments aimed at board members and staff were disheartening.

"So everybody is entitled to their own opinions," he continued. "My opinion is not to take a shot to the eye and just walk away from it without saying anything. I'm going to have something to say if I get a black eye."

He also encouraged community members to run for a seat on the board if they disagreed with its actions. Because of redistricting, every board member's seat will be on the ballot for reelection in May.

Duane Glenn, a board member, echoed Thomas. Glenn said disgruntled patrons should seek a seat on the board rather than making comments on social media.

"If you want to help and do something positive, run and do that," he said.

TITLE IX INQUIRY

Two players admitted the accusations to investigators and blamed a player now on the senior high team for having done the same to them a year earlier. The investigation stated that two students admitted to both holding down teammates and placing exposed genitals in or on the faces of players who were restrained.

According to the parent of one of the students, who was a victim, the incidents happened multiple times to several players. Some players were "baptized" more than 10 times. One student was held down by three students while two others "baptized" him, according to the parent.

Another parent told the Record that his son said after a game that the older boys stood in front of the locker room doors to prevent other players from leaving. Scared younger players would hide in the locker room showers, the lights would go off and when the lights came back on, a player who had been "baptized" would be lying on the floor crying.

The Record has chosen not to identify any of the students involved and to protect their identities by protecting the identities of their parents or guardians.

At a special School Board meeting May 19 that lasted into the early hours of May 20, the board heard testimony from students appealing the punishment recommendations of the investigators.

The board was presented letters from students who made the formal sexual harassment/sexual assault complaint stating the damaging effects of the actions.

Despite the evidence in the investigative report and letters, the board determined the evidence wasn't sufficient to uphold the recommended punishment or, in some cases, punishment at all.

The board reversed its initial decision to expel the two students for one year by shortening the expulsions to one semester.

The board also reversed the punishment of five days of out-of-school suspension initially given to three other students. The board also dropped the requirement that the three participate in Arkansas Athletic Association Conduct Training and Title IX Bullying and Sexual Harassment training.

FAMILY REACTION

One parent said after the School Board meeting Monday that her son was a victim. She said she was offended by Thomas' remarks about how hard the board and staff worked on the issue and how hurtful negative comments had been.

Another attendee said she wished board members had let one parent talk.

"They didn't do anything for her. She had to bust in there and say something. They didn't even give her a chance to talk," the attendee said. "They wouldn't even look at her. They, actually, like, sat there and would not look at her."

"I just want them to think about the words that they're using, the things that they're saying, and how absolutely inappropriate that was that they're proud of themselves and hurt over some bad social media," another parent said. "And I think that it's a shame that I have to come out. I have to come out and say something where my son is a victim. It's going to out him in a very small community to try and make the adults be accountable."

Glenn said after the board meeting that he didn't know of some of the allegations parents were making. If more victim stories come out, he personally would not have a problem revisiting the issues in the first investigation, he said.

Glenn said the board is limited in how it can handle the investigation and speak to members of the community. He said he didn't want to name students publicly who may have been involved.

"It's not my place to go investigate," Glenn said. "I hope we have people in place that [do] that, and they bring us that information, and we base our decision off of that, which we did.

"Now, I can't say that I'm not curious about some of this other stuff. Stuff that has come up that I haven't heard," he said. "I think there's more out there. Whether they come back later, I think some of these parents and kids are opening up more now, and they didn't tell that stuff."

Relatives with students in the district who voiced their concerns about the Title IX investigation also attended the meeting. Some asked not to be identified.

STATE HOTLINE CONTACTED

Kimball said she notified the Arkansas Department of Human Services by contacting the Child Abuse Hotline after a Title IX complaint was filed. A formal complaint in the case was filed Feb. 25.

When asked for comment about what happened in the locker rooms, Kimball said, "Due to the privacy of students when there is a Title IX investigation, this district is never able to comment."

Teachers, school officials, law enforcement officials, public and private school counselors and school officials are considered mandated reporters under state law, meaning they are required to notify the abuse hotline if they suspect a child has suffered maltreatment.

Under Arkansas law, child maltreatment includes sexual abuse, "by a person 14 years of age or older to a person younger than 18 years of age: sexual contact by forcible compulsion, indecent exposure." Reports to the hotline "must be made immediately."

One parent told the Record that he called the state police's Child Abuse Hotline, the Human Services Department and the school resource officer. The parent additionally contacted Madison County Sheriff Rick Evans, who told him the school was handling the allegations because the case fell under Title IX provisions.

Neither the sheriff's office nor the Huntsville Police Department requested opening a criminal investigation, according to Bill Sadler, a state police spokesman. However, Sadler said the law prohibits him from stating whether a child maltreatment case arising from a hotline report has been opened.

Maltreatment investigations by civilian or noncommissioned investigators aren't considered criminal investigation, Sadler said.

Evans said previously that "the school's handling it," when asked about a criminal investigation. He said that if a criminal complaint is filed, "I'll get with the prosecutor and go from there."

HUNTSVILLE POLICE

Huntsville Police Chief Todd Thomas said his office hasn't been formally notified concerning the allegations, but if someone were to file a complaint, his office would ask the state police to lead the investigation.

Todd and Danny Thomas are brothers.

The Title IX report, which was sent to the parents of students involved in the allegations, notes the school resource officer was notified of the allegations.

Todd Thomas said that if someone reached out to him about opening an investigation into the allegations, he would have called the state police. Rather than formally leading the investigation, his department would have assisted.

Danny Thomas led the expulsion hearings concerning the allegations, as well as voted on the resulting punishment. At the first expulsion hearing, he voted to expel two students for one year and voted for out-of-school suspension for three students.

At the appeals hearing, he voted along with the majority of the School Board to modify the expulsion to one semester and to eliminate the out-of-school suspension for the other three students.

Another Title IX investigation in the district is ongoing. One parent, whose child was a victim of being "baptized" in the ongoing investigation, told the Record that he's waiting for the outcome before deciding whether to go to other authorities.

"My stance right now is, we're going to give the school right now the opportunity to do what is right and handle the discipline that justifies, the discipline that needs to be handed out for what they did," he said.

Another parent told the Record, "I feel actions have consequences. The reason we really don't want to go with the criminal route yet is because this will follow these boys forever if it goes that far, and I know at least one of them is truly remorseful and has made changes to his lifestyle. But, he still deserves punishment for what happened."

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