Good folks in Huntsville remain angry over the way their school board failed to uphold suggested punishments for five male students involved in sexually harassing junior high athletes in their locker room after basketball games.
The disgusting act of placing their naked private parts in the faces of junior high teammates in a practice they deemed "baptizing," or "bean dipping," has torn the fabric of this Ozarks community of 2,500.
One student interviewed during the Title IX investigation, who asked to remain anonymous, told KNWA television his teammates said they paid cash weekly to avoid the shocking mistreatment.
"I got some threats," he's quoted saying. "[They said] don't tell anybody or we're coming after you." The student said the hazing didn't stop after the investigations.
This is the type of scandal few would ever imagine happening in a tranquil, relatively conservative town like Huntsville. Following news reports and a press conference by activist group Madison County Residents Connect, the Madison County Sheriff's Office announced it's now investigating the incidents for potential criminal behavior.
The baptism incidents prompted a now-concluded Title IX investigation into the junior high athletic program and a similar ongoing probe into the senior high school involving several students who reportedly led the hazing while in junior high.
Ellen Kreth, publisher of the Madison County Record, who has pursued the story in-depth, reported that players restrained younger teammates while others undressed then placed genitals in or on the restrained players' faces. In the Title IX investigation, two players admitted to such behavior.
According to a victim's parent, the incidents happened multiple times. And some players were "baptized" more than 10 times.
One parent told The Record his son had told him that, after a game, older boys prevented other players from leaving. Younger players would hide in the locker room showers, the lights would go off and when they came back on, a "baptized" player would be in the floor crying.
School board members and Huntsville School Superintendent Audra Kimball were made aware of the incidents in February. After the school conducted a Title IX investigation, the so-called decision makers--Huntsville High School Principal Roxanne Enix, Middle School Principal Matt Ferguson and Director of Athletics Tom McCollough--recommended a year-long expulsion for two students, five days out-of-school suspension for three students, and in-school suspension for one.
The board shortened the year-long expulsion to a semester and threw out punishment completely for three students.
The school board's latest monthly meeting was interrupted shortly after it began when folks expressed anger that their school board failed to uphold recommended punishments for five male students found to be involved in the "baptisms."
At that session, Board President Danny Thomas warned Patricia Mikkelsen, founder of Residents Connect, that she was out of order since she wasn't on their agenda. Members from the Residents Connect group stood to support Mikkelsen's request.
Board member Duane Glenn quickly moved to adjourn. Members of the audience asked to speak. "Hear us out, guys. We're being peaceful," parent Carl Stewart said. Another added: "Hear us now, or hear us later."
Two board members left the room. Member Lenora Riedel (who, Kreth wrote, many parents feel has a conflict of interest because of a family member's involvement) did not attend. Member Terry Forsyth left after the meeting adjourned and before hearing comments from the crowd.
These are but glimpses of the frustration and ire many parents and others who care about the town and its school district are experiencing.
Mikkelsen told me the underreported aspect to this controversy lies in how people in the community became connected and bonded largely through supporting the mother of a victim, and the affection they've since come to share.
"The miraculous way we all came together, bonded, and pulled off a major event in about five days was so beautiful," she said, adding that besides mutual outrage, the back story has become one of people who care deeply for their county.
Mikkelsen, who admitted she was initially apprehensive about becoming involved, now encourages others to join the growing group at peoplehelpingpeople.wordpress.com.
"I got to be the tip of the spear, presenting the board with a signed petition asking for the board member's resignations," she said. "People have been scared to talk. I was afraid myself. But I had to stand up. No more fear."
An admitted former "tree hugger and conservative hippie," Mikkelsen said she learned of the baptism incidents from social media and Kreth's reporting.
"I knew I had to get involved," she said. Her fledgling group, she said, is comprised of those who respect each others' differences and rise above them out of regard for the public interest.
It certainly will be interesting to see what the ongoing investigations reveal and how Madison County responds in the 2022 election when every board position will be open.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.