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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Ugly in Huntsville

by Mike Masterson | June 22, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

News out of Huntsville ought to make every parent of a junior-high male athlete cringe in disbelief. My son is 50 years old and it made me wince.

Two junior high players admitted to performing so-called "baptism" on others who were held down as the two put their genitals on their faces. At least 10 players reported being "baptized" more than once.

The resulting Title IX Sexual Harassment/Sexual Assault investigation findings prompted three Title IX "decision-makers" (who determine punishments) to recommend a one-year suspension for two students and five-day out-of-school suspensions for three others.

But the Huntsville District School Board recently voted to go against that determination by cutting in half the suggested penalty for the two students, finding them "too severe," while throwing out punishment for the other three, stating the evidence didn't support the determination, according to a story by Ellen Kreth of the Madison County Record and republished with Celia Kreth in our paper.

Decision-makers in the sexual harassment/assault investigation were the high and middle school principals and the Huntsville School District athletic director.

Although none of the students involved was named (all are minors) the resulting contention in this town of 2,400 souls has been palpable since Huntsville's School Board inexplicably reduced the suggested punishments.

At the appeal hearing for these students, the board, including President Danny Thomas, also decided the three students also were no longer required to attend the Arkansas Athletic Association's Conduct Training and the Title IX Bullying and Sexual Harassment training classes initially recommended.

Following the board's reversal, Thomas was quoted saying he was proud of the board and the community, faculty and staff. He said everybody is entitled to their own opinions. "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."

Hmm. I'm not sure how to interpret that comment, considering the nature of an event that caused so much pain to families across that community, as well as the way the board handled the suggested punishments.

Parents of the children affected were outraged during the last board meeting over the fact its members would choose to take such a U-turn in administering what initially seemed to be somewhat reasonable punishment, then hear Thomas heap praise upon the elected group for a job supposedly well-done.

I understand serving on any school board can prove to be a thankless, often controversial responsibility. It requires the spine and inner strength to say no whenever that becomes necessary. I doubt most of us are willing to voluntarily place ourselves in such positions.

Board member Duane Glenn was quoted saying he didn't know about some allegations parents were making. "It's not my place to go investigate. I hope we have people in place that [do] that and they bring us that information. ... I think there's more out there."

Were I an elected school board member pledged to faithfully perform my responsibilities in the district's public interest, I'd want to investigate the facts behind this sordid matter. Wouldn't you? The fundamental facts in the case, as I understand them, already seem clear, particularly since both boys confessed to their "baptizings."

It appears from the thorough and enterprising news account by the Record's Kreth that the confessing students said they'd had the same locker room "baptism" performed on them by another youth now in senior high school.

At the last board meeting, parents of the victims who weren't on the board's agenda weren't allowed to address its members. Little wonder there was shouting involved. Shutting these people out is a truly bad idea in a community where most folks know each other and their relatives.

The news story quoted one attendee who said board members wouldn't even look at the parents when they tried to express their anger and raise questions about the school district's odd handling of the situation.

That surely would be enough to raise my hackles had my son or relative been victimized in such a manner, and then the penalty for those responsible drastically was reduced without sufficient explanation.

The Record also quoted other parents. One whose child was a victim said he's waiting for the findings of another Title IX report before deciding whether to go to other authorities.

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

Another added: "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."

Consequences to our actions for all involved; couldn't have summarized it better.


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 mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Print Headline: Ugly in Huntsville

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