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No decision after testimony ends in Huntsville School District open records trial

School district messages at issue by Bill Bowden | November 9, 2021 at 3:38 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 -- Lawyers sparred Monday in a trial over whether the Huntsville School District violated certain aspects of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act in a case involving sexual assault allegations regarding boys on the middle school basketball team.

Scheduled for two hours, the trial went on about twice that long before testimony ended and Circuit Judge Doug Martin asked the attorneys to submit briefs instead of making closing arguments. The briefs are due by the end of next Monday.

The trial primarily concerned whether the school district violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by not releasing text messages sent between Superintendent Audra Kimball and members of the Huntsville School Board.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen filed the lawsuit in Madison County Circuit Court on July 28 on behalf of Benjamin Rightsell of Witter.

In court on Monday, McCutchen said the school district provided the text messages to the Madison County Record under an open records request, then denied them to Rightsell when he made a similar request.

Steven S. Zega, an attorney representing the school district, said the newspaper's open records request was for all text messages and other documents over a certain period of time. Rightsell's request was for documents that specifically concern a Title IX sexual harassment investigation involving minors, which should be kept confidential, he said.

Mistakenly releasing the text messages once didn't mean the school district had to do so again, said Kimball.

"Well, as Mr. Zega said, we may have messed up once, but then he brought more insight into it," she testified.

One of the text messages, which McCutchen read in court, was sent to Kimball on Feb. 22 from School Board President Danny Thomas.

"Hey, I'm sure you're aware of evidently some serious matters going on with the junior high boys in the locker room," McCutchen said, as he read Thomas' text in court. "There's a storm on the horizon over this, I'm afraid. We can talk about it tomorrow. It sounds pretty bad."

Kimball replied in a text: "I'm very aware. Tom is on top of it. They're investigating it," according to McCutchen. Tom was a reference to Tom McCollough, the school's athletic director.

According to a "Title IX Sexual Harassment Determination of Responsibility" report completed after the internal investigation, the accused players had placed their "genitals in the faces" of several eighth- and ninth-grade boys who were being restrained by other boys in the locker room after games. The practice -- called "baptism" -- occurred several times during the basketball season, as well as the previous year, according to the report.

The two boys admitted to "baptizing" other players, according to the report.

Other boys were cited in the report as helping restrain the victims while they were being "baptized." Because they are underage and students, none of the boys' names were used in the report.

On May 3, the School Board met and upheld the punishment recommended by school administrators. After an appeal, the board met again on May 19 and reduced that punishment for both boys from a one-year expulsion to one semester, according to McCutchen's complaint.

The school district's attorneys have already admitted that the district didn't notify the press of some meetings and didn't keep recordings of those meetings, as required under the Freedom of Information Act. School officials mistakenly thought the press shouldn't be notified because the meetings, in some cases, concerned student disciplinary action, and the press would be excluded from that part of the meetings, according to court records.

Another aspect of Monday's trial concerned whether Shannon Hahn, the Madison County Record's general manager, was illegally excluded from the May 19 School Board appeals hearing.

Hahn testified that Kimball told her that she couldn't attend the meeting. Hahn said she thought that was a mistake: that under the open-records law, she should be able to attend the first part of the meeting, when the gathering is called to order. Then, if parents asked for the disciplinary part of the meeting to be closed, she would leave the room, said Hahn.

Hahn said Thomas told her that she would have to wait in her car while the disciplinary hearing was underway because the boardroom wasn't soundproof.

Hahn said she assumed that since she wasn't allowed to attend the first meeting that night, she wouldn't be allowed to attend another three, which went on until about 4 a.m.

McCutchen has also filed a lawsuit in federal court over the Title IX allegations. The Madison County Record filed a motion to intervene in that case after the school district asked a judge to seal the case. The Record's motion to intervene was granted on Monday.

Print Headline: Records-lawsuit testimony heard

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