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Huntsville School Board approves settlement accepting liability in Title IX case involving basketball team

$1 settlement requires court approval by Bill Bowden | July 26, 2022 at 7:11 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 -- The Huntsville School Board voted unanimously on Monday to accept liability in a federal Title IX lawsuit and settle the case, which involves allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault by and to boys on the middle school basketball team.

Joey McCutchen, who represents Rebecca Nelle in the case, made a settlement offer saying if the Huntsville School District would pay Nelle $1 and admit liability, he would agree to dismiss the case and waive attorney fees.

Under the agreement, Nelle wouldn't be able to refile the suit later and school staff would have to take Title IX training.

"The court still has to approve this settlement, and we want to respect the court, in essence that it's in the best interest of the minor," McCutchen said during a telephone interview after the meeting.


Nelle filed the lawsuit Sept. 10, 2021, on behalf of her child, identified as B.N.

In her suit, Nelle said the school district knew that students on the boys middle school basketball team were being sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by older boys and did little or nothing to stop it. School officials maintained they first learned of the locker-room incidents in February 2021.

Nelle's lawsuit cites Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which ensures that all students -- male and female -- have access to and equality in education. It offers a wide range of protection related to athletics, admission, housing and sexual harassment, among others.

The complaint alleges federal 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 that a hostile education environment was created that denied B.N. and other students access to educational opportunities.


According to the suit, ninth-grade players on the team would "engage in forcible sexual assault" by holding an eighth-grade team member down while others assaulted them.

B.N., according to the lawsuit, was abused on 14 occasions while being held down against his will by older basketball players at the school. He was then threatened with retaliation if he told school authorities or his parents of the abuse, the suit said.

According to an amended complaint, at least 17 middle school or high school players were victimized and at least one student paid another student not to abuse him.

"I was pleased that they admitted liability, that they admitted a Title IX violation," said McCutchen. "To admit a Title IX violation, they have to admit they had prior knowledge this was going on and didn't do anything about it."

During Monday's meeting, Charles Harwell, the school district's attorney, said two Title IX investigations had been done regarding the Huntsville School District and they involved "two dozen" students, counting both victims and perpetrators.

The public was also given the opportunity to speak.

Jamie Harris told the board that on Nov. 9, 2019, she and her son went to Caleb Houston, who was then the basketball coach, about the sexual assaults, but nothing was done.

"My son is the one that told Coach Houston," said Harris. "We submitted the evidence we had at the time. I just want to let you know that they did know after that date."

Harris said she has "documentation" of that visit with the coach.

"I know bruises do heal," she said, "but scars are for life, and we're dealing with scars."

Board member Connie tenBerge made a motion to accept the settlement offer, and Bobby Gulledge seconded it.

As they voted, everyone raised their hand to accept the offer except for Nick Wilson, who asked for an opportunity to speak.

"My biggest thing with this is I hate what happened, No. 1," he said. "It's terrible. And I feel for you [speaking at Harris]."

Wilson said some members of the previous board made decisions he wouldn't have agreed with, but others from the school district who were involved did the right thing, and he doesn't believe they should be blamed.

After elections in May, only one member of last year's School Board remains on the board.

"I think we all want to move forward," said Wilson. "I think that's what we as a board want to do. That's the whole reason any of us ran, to make a difference and move forward, right? And if this helps us to do that, I'm willing to accept it."

Board President Whitney Comer recused herself from Monday's meeting.

Harwell had laid out much of his argument in a memo Friday to the School Board.

"I told the Plaintiff's attorney that the requirement of an admission of liability was such a significant problem, I could not recommend settlement proposal to the Board, even though it is otherwise a very practical and attractive offer," he wrote in the memo.

"The District has several strong defenses to this case," wrote Harwell. "The District is not liable for the actions of students unless it knew about the incidents and did nothing about them. We believe the facts will show that the District first found out about these hideous locker room antics in February of 2021 and immediately launched an investigation. No other incidents occurred after the District found out."

Admitting liability is a twofold problem, wrote Harwell. It can be used in litigation arising from the same events.

"First, the locker room incidents which are the basis of this federal lawsuit occurred during the 2020-21 basketball season," wrote Harwell. "Additionally the Title IX investigation done by the District revealed that similar incidents happened during the 2019-20 basketball season. The statute of limitations has not run on claims that other victims could bring relating to those incidents. If the District admits it was liable in the Plaintiff's case, it means that the District could not deny liability for any additional cases that might be brought before the statute of limitations would bar such a claim. ...

"Candidly, an admission of liability is very likely to cause others to file suit. So instead of closing the book on these terrible acts, it may be opening the flood gates of litigation."

The second problem with admitting liability, wrote Harwell, is the school district "is forever cast as a 'wrongdoer' and that admission will likely be placed into evidence in any future discrimination case ... in an attempt to show the District is a bad actor."

The trial is scheduled for Feb. 13.



Print Headline: Board at Huntsville accepts liability in suit

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