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17 candidates run for 7 school board seats in Huntsville after sexual-harassment scandal

by Bill Bowden | March 21, 2022 at 1:01 a.m.
A sign labeling it as the "Crossroads of the Ozarks," welcomes visitors to Huntsville in Madison County. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette FILE PHOTO)

Seventeen candidates are running for School Board positions in Huntsville, population 2,879.

That's 10 more candidates than in 2012 -- the last time all seven School Board seats were up for election after redistricting. All seven candidates were incumbents that year.

This year, the race has four incumbents and 13 challengers for the seven School Board seats.

The election will be held May 24.

Several challengers said they're running, at least in part, because of a scandal last year over sexual harassment allegations among boys on the junior high school basketball team.

Steve W. Obenshain, 59, who is running unopposed for the Zone 6 seat, said that "I would like to see it go back to the old hometown school" where "kids don't have to hang their heads down when people ask them where they go to school."

"They've taken a few roundhouses to the jaw," he said.

Obenshain said some athletes have transferred to other schools because of the scandal.

According to a "Title IX Sexual Harassment Determination of Responsibility" report completed after an internal investigation last spring, 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.

On May 3, the School Board met and upheld the punishment recommended by school administrators against the two boys who admitted to "baptising" other players.

After appeals, the board met again on May 19 and reduced that punishment for both boys from a one-year expulsion to one semester.

School Board President Danny Thomas proposed the change in punishment, saying the board believed it was in line with the school district's discipline policies, according to minutes of the public portion of the May 19 meeting.

Two lawsuits have been filed over the sexual-harassment allegations and the School Board's handling of it. Joey McCutchen, a Fort Smith lawyer, filed both lawsuits.

One suit was filed in Madison County Circuit Court on behalf of Benjamin Rightsell of Witter. It accused the school district of violating the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The school district admitted to several violations of the law, primarily concerning failure to notify the media of public meetings and not preserving recordings of those meetings.

According to court documents, school officials mistakenly thought the media shouldn't be notified of meetings that concerned student disciplinary action.

A federal lawsuit over the Title IX issues is still pending. In that lawsuit, Rebecca Nelle said the school district knew the "baptisms" were taking place, "failed to promptly and properly investigate" the reports and left the victims in a "hostile educational environment" with their unpunished abusers.

"The biggest factor for me was the lack of transparency," said Brady Cotton, 28, a School Board candidate who works as a software engineer for a Wisconsin company.

He's running against Thomas and two other challengers in Zone 3.

"I don't think they did it all on purpose," said Cotton. "They recently got some FOI training. I think that will definitely help."

Logan Roddy, 30, who's also running for the Zone 3 seat, also cited transparency as an issue.

"I think there's been a major lack in transparency from the school board to the parents," he said. "You've got a lot of concerned parents."

He's a business owner and former full-time law enforcement officer who still works part time for the Madison County sheriff's office.

Toni Johnson, 71, who's running for Zone 4, said she running to improve things for the school district.

"I don't like what I hear is going on in other schools, and I don't want them to happen in ours," she said.

When asked to elaborate, she cited Critical Race Theory and the New York Times' 1619 Project. She's a former home visitor for Huntsville Head Start and Madison County employee of the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Regarding the scandal and last year's School Board, Johnson said, "I think a lot of people feel, and I do, too, that maybe it wasn't handled in the best way."

She said it appeared something happened -- "some kind of intimidation" -- to cause the School Board to change the discipline meted out by school administrators.

"We don't know for sure, but it looks bad," said Johnson.

Whitney Comer also cited the scandal. She's running for the Zone 7 seat against incumbent Janeal Yancey and another challenger.

"I'm running because our county is wanting to see a change in who's on the School Board, and I don't want just anybody in there," she said.

Comer said she has a background in child development and owns Little Fishers Preschool in Huntsville.

Joshua Aaron Obenshain, 36, a cousin of Steve Obenshain's, is running for the Zone 4 School Board seat.

Josh Obenshain said he wants to give back to the community and serving on the school board is a way to do that.

He's an electrical manufacturer's representative who served on the board of Madison County Youth Baseball for five years.

"We've had some issues going on," he said. "I don't think those are a secret."

Josh Obenshain said the school board might have been able to handle things better.

"To be honest with you, people have talked about it for a year," he said. "I think people are ready to put it behind us and move forward."

Connie tenBerge, 65, who taught school in Huntsville for 33 years, didn't mention the scandal when asked why she's running for the Zone 3 seat.

"No. 1, I'm running for the kids," she said.

"If things are right with academics, everything else will follow," she said.

TenBerge will retire from teaching on May 31.

Three members of the School Board -- Leonora Reidel, Kyle Taylor and Kevin Wilson -- aren't running for reelection.

Print Headline: 17 candidates run for 7 school board seats in Huntsville


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