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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Student abuse

by Mike Masterson | March 29, 2022 at 3:44 a.m.


Parents of middle school-aged boys in the community of Lamar appear to have much in common with those who have students of similar age enrolled in the Huntsville School District.

I'm talking about allegations of Title IX sexual abuse and misconduct among some middle-schoolers in the Lamar district's boys' locker room.

A March 10 blurb by "Today in Fort Smith" said it has learned members of the Arkansas State Police had met with Lamar School District administrators to discuss "a situation that may have occurred in a school locker room."

Since then, I've learned those school officials are cooperating with law enforcement to investigate circumstances surrounding the reported abuse of what one victim's parent tells me is at least one seventh-grade student (and perhaps as many as four others).

I've seen no one in authority talking about it yet, at least not publicly, although I have seen related email exchanges between Lamar administrators. One March 10 message from Athletic Director Brett Sampley said he had been "bombarded with calls" over the alleged abuse but knew nothing at that point, which put him in a "tough spot" after being left out of the administrative loop.

The group known as Arkansas Justice Project (AJP), which FOI'd those emails and related records, has called on parents to contact School District Superintendent Jay Holland and members of the Lamar School Board to express their concerns.

Founded in 2018 to fight injustices in Arkansas, the AJP explained its involvement by saying members "began getting a flurry of messages about the children in the Lamar School District. Story after story began flooding in and we sat in disbelief as we heard what has been happening."

The organization believes children are being failed by some of the very people who are supposed to protect them. "We know there are excellent educators and staff that care and love our children. We heard from them, fearful to speak out for fear of retaliation. One by one throughout the day alarms were sound[ed] and we heard them. ..."

Children are being bullied, the group said in a Facebook post. "Our children are being called racial slurs and told to 'learn to take a joke' when reported to staff. ... Our children are being sexually assaulted in the bathroom. We had more than one story of sexual assault."

AJP said that when the district staff and administration were informed of incidents and even presented with video evidence, they responded by not fulfilling their duty to protect children. "These stories come from parents who didn't come to us first, they desperately tried to get the staff and administration to do something. They desperately tried to get local law enforcement to do something.

"Each person who the students tried to get to help them ... are mandated reporters. This is ... not just a failure to protect; they actively tried to sweep this under the rug, ignored desperate pleas from vulnerable and victimized children, instructed them to delete evidence of the crime that happened on their watch ... ."

Instead, the group said, children and parents were told "'boys will be boys.' They ignored and diminished pleas from parents asking for answers, then they created a policy to prevent kids from doing the only thing they know how in the face of adults failing to intervene, record acts of violence."

AJP said it believes select adults are "fostering an environment permissive of abuse in the form of sexual assault, peer-to-peer bullying, emotional and physical, educators calling students racial slurs, peers being allowed to use racial slurs or a sixth-grade student brutally attacking a staff member and being allowed to return to the school.

"The children who victimized their peers and others need help. We do not help them by allowing their behavior to continue and willfully covering it up. The adults we trusted to take care of our children have failed our children ... . They are just as much the abuser by perpetuating the abuse through their actions."

The organization, whose members prefer to remain unnamed due to the nature of their investigations, was provided footage of the alleged assault. "We watched and listened in horror as the victims suffered. It's incomprehensible this was dismissed by school authorities as 'boys being boys.'"

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, already representing one victim in the Huntsville locker room abuses, has been retained by one Lamar victim's parent.

"Schools are supposed to be, and must be, a safe haven for our children." McCutchen told me. "We are just beginning to investigate the events at Lamar. We have audio of a child screaming and have received information that he was being sexually abused by another student. This is entirely unacceptable. We are committed to keeping our children safe and we will pursue all available remedies."

Parents across the state should learn if such abuses are occurring in their own districts and whether mandated reporters of such incidents in their district are fulfilling their responsibilities, or choosing to ignore them under the excuse "boys will be boys."


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


Print Headline: Student abuse

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