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Huntsville voters ousted three School Board members; another three didn’t run for reelection

Report on hazing roils Huntsville by Bill Bowden | May 29, 2022 at 2:57 a.m.
A sign labeling it as the "Crossroads of the Ozarks," welcomes visitors to Huntsville in Madison County. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette FILE PHOTO)

Three members of the Huntsville School Board were voted out of office on Tuesday, and another three incumbents decided not to run.

Only one of the current board members -- who ran unopposed for reelection -- will remain on the board.

And the superintendent has stepped down.

All the turnover comes after a year of turmoil at the school district in which boys on the junior high basketball team were accused of sexually assaulting each other in the locker room, and school officials eventually admitted to 10 violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, many of which concerned the scandal.

"I think our biggest issue with this situation came down to transparency," said Janeal Yancey, who had been on the School Board for 12 years before losing her reelection bid on Tuesday.

"We had the perception of not being transparent," said Yancey. "Some of that was out of our control. Some of it was mistakes that were addressed. When you are dealing with minors, it's hard to walk that line between transparency and privacy. I would rather err on the side of protecting the privacy of our kids. Being more transparent or at least communicating more about what was going on could have helped some. Honestly it was just a bad situation all around."

Besides Yancey, those losing their reelection races included School Board President Danny Thomas and Terry Forsyth.

Between the three of them, they had garnered 273 votes, according to vote totals from the Madison County clerk's office.

Another three members of the seven-member School Board -- Leonora Reidel, Kyle Taylor and Kevin Wilson -- didn't run for reelection.

That means only one incumbent will return to the School Board -- Duane Glenn, who was unopposed in Tuesday's election.

And former Superintendent Audra Kimball announced that she has switched jobs with Jonathan Warren. She is now director of personnel and program compliance for the Huntsville School District.

INVESTIGATION

The problems came to light in early 2021 with accusations among the basketball players and an investigation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

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 "baptizing" 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.

Thomas, then-board president, 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.

Thomas got 46 votes in Tuesday's election, coming in fourth in his bid to retain his Zone 3 School Board seat.

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. He won on most aspects of his lawsuit in state court over the School Board's violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. The federal suit is still pending.

Yancey said the baptism scandal made for a particularly difficult year.

"It was a very frustrating situation from the start and dealing with the Title IX, it being new, was very complicated," she said. "That process is very tedious and the privacy issues with minors made it impossible to explain to our community exactly what was going on. ...

"My biggest concern is what this has done to our community and the community support for our school. Our school and administrators have fought lots of negative media, rumors and several incorrect facts circulating in our community. It has cost our school. We have a lot of great things happening in Huntsville and this situation has clouded that.

"I hope that we can move on from this and people will go back to supporting our schools and the people in them. I will continue to do what I can to help our schools and our community continue to succeed."

13 BOARD CHALLENGERS

This year, 17 candidates ran 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's race pitted four incumbents and 13 challengers for the seven School Board seats.

Two of the School Board races will be decided in runoff elections on June 21. Those races pit Benjamin Rightsell against Bobby Ray Gulledge in Zone 1, and Connie tenBerge and Brady Cotton in Zone 3.

Rightsell was the plaintiff in McCutchen's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. In the Zone 1 race, incumbent Terry Forsyth finished last with 197 votes, compared with 224 for Gulledge and 205 for Rightsell.

Rightsell said he's ready to move on from the baptism issue.

"Me, being involved as I was, I'm trying to move past it," he said. "There's nothing we can do about the past so hopefully we can move past all that and move forward into the future as a goal."

Rightsell said people are upset about a lack of transparency among school officials and the board. He said people are also upset because they often can't talk to board members.

Four of the current seven board members have their personal email addresses on the board's website at http://huntsvilleschooldistrict.org/212192_2, but Rightsell said it can be difficult to reach them that way.

Outright winners in Tuesday's School Board election were Joshua Aaron Obenshain in Zone 4, Nick Wilson in Zone 5 and Whitney Comer, who defeated incumbent Janeal Yancey and another challenger for the Zone 7 seat.

Steve W. Obenshain ran unopposed in Zone 6.

According to the Madison County clerk's office, the unofficial election results were:

Zone 1:

Bobby Gulledge 224

Benjamin Rightsell 205

Terry Forsyth 129

Zone 3:

Connie tenBerge 171

Brady Cotton 102

Logan Roddy 50

Danny Thomas 46

Zone 4

Joshua Aaron Obenshain 221

Stephen Ford 129

Toni Johnson 71

Zone 5

Nick Wilson 339

Darrel Summers 167

Zone 7

Whitney Comer 316

Janeal Yancey 98

Michelle Rushano 74

Print Headline: Election overhauls board at 1 district

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