No charges to be filed against Huntsville school officials after sexual abuse allegations among students

Prosecutor: Students’ hazing doesn’t fit mandatory reporting law’s terms

No charges will be filed against Huntsville school officials for not immediately calling the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline to report accusations of sexual abuse among boys on the junior high school basketball team, according to a prosecutor.

Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said on Monday that he didn't file charges because the requirements of the mandatory reporter statute, Arkansas Code Annotated 12-18-402, didn't apply in this case.

"A mandated reporter is required to file a hotline report when there is reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child maltreatment," Durrett said in an email. "'Child maltreatment' is defined as abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation, or abandonment. Each of those terms is defined in [Arkansas Code Annotated] 12-18-103. None of the statutory definitions fit the actions that were reported to school officials. Therefore, there was no legal requirement to file a hotline report.

"Obviously, the prudent thing to do is to err on the side of caution and file a report. However, there was no legal requirement to do so. As such, we did not have a legal basis for filing charges."

Rebecca M. Nelle filed a complaint with the Madison County sheriff's office in October saying school officials knew about the allegations in February 2021 but failed to immediately report them to the Child Abuse Hotline as required under Arkansas Code Annotated 12-18-201. Violation of the law would be a misdemeanor.

The allegations stem from a scandal last year involving players on the basketball team.

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.

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.

The scandal spawned two lawsuits against the school district, one in state court and one in federal court. Nelle is the plaintiff in the federal suit. Both cases are still pending.

"I think it's outrageous and ridiculous, truthfully," Benjamin Rightsell of Witter said of the decision not to charge school officials. "The loophole in the wording is how they're getting away with it. ... It's aggravating because it's almost like they look for a loophole to wash their hands of it."

Rightsell, who is running for the School Board, filed the lawsuit in state court against the Huntsville School District last year claiming the board violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act regarding meetings pertaining to punishment for students involved in the sexual abuse allegations. The School Board admitted to several violations of the Freedom of Information Act.

"If you're told something's happened, you've got to call," said Rightsell. "You don't wait to find out more information."

Jamie Harris of Huntsville said she was "dumbfounded" when she heard the news that school officials wouldn't be charged.

"It almost brought tears to my eyes," she said. "They're trying to find a loophole any which way they can by stating that there is no definitive definition of what is abuse, assault or mistreatment."

The sheriff's office investigated Nelle's complaint regarding the Child Abuse Hotline before Durrett decided not to file charges against the school officials.

Durrett said he asked Capt. Russell Alberts with the sheriff's office to write an incident report regarding the case.

"Since we can't release the file due to the Child Maltreatment Act, we had Capt. Alberts do a summary," said Durrett.

According to Alberts' report, which was completed earlier this month, "Investigation revealed that Caleb Houston (Head Coach), Audra Kimball (Superintendent), Tommy McCollough (Athletic Director) and Roxanne Enix (High School Principal) are all mandated reporters, in accordance with 12-18-402 and are required to report incidents involving suspected or actual child maltreatment."

The incident was brought to Enix's attention on Feb. 9, 2021, according to Alberts' report. Enix would have been the first mandated reporter having knowledge of the incident, he wrote. The Child Abuse Hotline received six calls about the Huntsville case on March 2, wrote Alberts. That was apparently after a formal complaint was filed and word was spreading in town.

"However the incident does not meet the criteria of child maltreatment," according to Alberts' report.

Sexual abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation and abandonment don't apply in this case, he wrote.

Indecent exposure falls under the category of sexual abuse, but "even though there may have been an indecent exposure, there was no sexual gratification involved," according to the incident report.

According to Arkansas Code Annotated 12-18-103,"'Indecent exposure' means the exposure by a person of the person's sexual organs for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of the person or of any other person under circumstances in which the person knows the conduct is likely to cause affront or alarm."

"This leaves only abuse, which by definition refers to acts carried out by a parent, guardian or others as defined in 12-18-103 ... not the victims' peers," wrote Alberts.

"Conclusion is that ... there was not a requirement to report the incident to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline," according to the report.

Nelle's attorney, Joey McCutchen, said he couldn't comment because of the pending litigation.

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