The Huntsville School District Title IX scandal at the city's junior high and high schools has become even messier since Fort Smith attorney Joey "Bulldog" McCutchen filed a lawsuit alleging the district's Board of Education violated the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Ace reporter Bill Bowden described in detail how McCutchen's suit, filed in Madison County Circuit Court against the school district the other day (on behalf of Benjamin Rightsell of Witter), questioned the legality of the board's special meeting regarding five junior high school student athletes accused of sexually accosting younger basketball players.
The board convened this spring to discuss potential disciplinary measures against the students but failed to notify the media or record the meeting as required under FOIA, according to the lawsuit.
School board meetings must be held in public with at least two hours' advance notice provided to media that requests such notification, according to the law. Disciplinary matters can be discussed in executive session, but no decision made in executive session is considered legal unless the body reconvenes and votes in public. Plus, all meetings must be recorded.
According to Bowden's story, "Some players on the Huntsville junior high boys basketball team were accused of placing their 'bare genitals in or on' the faces of younger boys who were being restrained, wrote McCutchen. One parent said some students were sexually assaulted in this manner 10 or more times, according to the suit. The practice was called 'baptizing,' McCutchen wrote. The school district received a formal complaint on Feb. 25.
"'A Title IX investigation was conducted by the Huntsville School District in response to the complaints,' McCutchen wrote. 'According to the district's investigative report, two players admitted to 'baptizing' victims and indicated that older students had previously performed the same act on them.'"
Several junior high basketball players said two students had "baptized" them or others in the locker room after games. "The victims did not consent to the baptism whatsoever," McCutchen said in a news release.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal funding, Bowden wrote. "Title IX 'obligations' include 'sex-based harassment, which encompasses sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence,' according to the U.S. Department of Education."
Following an investigation by school administrators, a "Determination of Responsibility" was completed in accordance with Title IX. Those findings were included as an exhibit with McCutchen's lawsuit. As I've previously written, the decision-making Huntsville school administrators in the Title IX investigation were High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Athletic Director Tom McCollough.
The school board in a special meeting expelled two students for a year on the recommendation of school administrators. However, following an appeal, the board reduced the punishment for each boy to a one-semester expulsion, Bowden reported. Administrators recommended a five-day suspension for three other youths who reportedly restrained players during the assaults, but the board reversed the punishment of those three on appeal.
"Based on information and belief, the press was not informed of the special meeting until after an appeal of the board's decision was filed," according to McCutchen's suit. "The appeal states that a board member had a conflict of interest because they are related to a student involved in the case. ... The appeal further states that the vote was done in private."
I've written before and gladly say again, our state needs more attorneys like McCutchen, his law partner Chip Sexton, and UALR law professor Robert Steinbuch, all of whom are willing to challenge elected councils, boards and other public entities who violate our vital FOIA.
Without such lawyers as gatekeepers, many of us would not learn much about how our business is being conducted in cities, counties, state agencies and school boards.
Benefits of friends
A close lifelong friend once said a person can be considered a rare breed if at the end of life they can count their true friends on one hand.
There's a lot of truth in that. And I've been fortunate enough to have surrounded myself with many more than that handful when it comes to genuine friendship--the kind where he or she is always there for you when and if you need them.
I can't imagine going through this challenging experience without those deeper relationships. Friendly acquaintances, while enjoyable, are a different breed than those who choose to commit to a more authentic friendship.
And apparently this is enough to have a far more profound positive effect on our physical life than any social benefits.
I read the other day that a three-year Swedish study of 13,600 men and women found a person with few or no close friends is at a 50 percent increased risk of suffering a first-time heart attack.
That statistic alone should provide enough incentive to seek ways to establish and retain genuine friendships.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.