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Huntsville School District intentionally withheld documents, amended lawsuit claims

by Ron Wood | October 23, 2021 at 7:46 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 -- A lawsuit against the Huntsville School District has been amended to add more allegations of Freedom of Information Act violations.

The lawsuit, filed in Madison County Circuit Court, alleges the School District violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by not informing the media about meetings of the School Board to consider disciplinary action in a sexual harassment case. The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Joey McCutchen, also said the district failed to record and preserve the public portion of School Board meetings, as required by law.

McCutchen filed an amended complaint Aug. 31 citing other instances in which he believes the district violated the Freedom of Information Act.

The latest amendment alleges two additional FOIA violations, including an allegation the district refused to produce documents pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The district refused to provide documents concerning allegations of sexual assault, sexual abuse and the act known as "baptizing" or "bean-dipping," the complaint says. The documents were previously provided to the Madison County Record through a FOIA request, according to McCutchen.

McCutchen also said he's asking prosecutors to investigate and file criminal charges related to intentional violations of the FOIA and the district's failure to immediately report the sexual assaults as mandated reporters.

A lawyer for the School District, Charles Harwell, said in a response school officials erred by not informing the media of the May 3 meetings. Because the meetings concerned disciplinary matters, "the defendants were mistaken in believing that no notice was required," he wrote in the filing.

Media wouldn't have been able to attend the disciplinary hearings because they were held in executive sessions, according to Harwell.

Disciplinary matters can be discussed in executive session, but no decision made in executive session is legal unless the public body reconvenes and votes in public, according to state law.

The School Board reconvened after the executive sessions and voted in public, wrote Harwell.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the board violated the Freedom of Information Act and to order future meetings will be held in compliance with the act. They also requested attorney's fees and expenses.

McCutchen and other attorneys have also filed a federal Title IX lawsuit against the School District.

The federal complaint alleges Title IX violations arising from deliberate indifference to, and actual knowledge of sexual harassment and sexual assault of multiple students; the district's failure to promptly and properly investigate reports of sexual harassment; and claims a hostile education environment was created that denied students access to educational opportunities.

The sexual assaults involved members of the freshmen boys' basketball team engaging in what was called "baptism" and "bean-dipping." "Baptism" refers to basketball players restraining other students while other players placed their genitals on or in the faces of the restrained students, according to the lawsuit. "Bean-dipping" refers to a student forcibly placing their rectum and anus on the face and particularly the nose of another.

The district, according to the lawsuit, knew students were being sexually abused and took no action to stop it.

The district said injuries the boy alleges to have suffered "occurred at the hands of third parties whose actions or liability cannot be imputed" to the Huntsville School District, according to a federal court filing.

The school district denies having knowledge of the abuse and doing nothing about it, according to its filings.

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