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Judge: Huntsville School District violated Freedom of Information Act by withholding public documents

Ruling: Huntsville schools wrongly closed documents by Bill Bowden | May 12, 2022 at 3:48 a.m.
A sign labeling it as the "Crossroads of the Ozarks," welcomes visitors to Huntsville in Madison County. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette FILE PHOTO)

The Huntsville School District and its School Board violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by not turning over all responsive documents requested by Benjamin Rightsell of Witter in a case involving sexual assault allegations among boys on the junior high school basketball team, a judge ruled on Wednesday.

"After a review of the documents, the Court finds that the Defendants were in possession of additional responsive documents that were unprotected from production under the Arkansas Child Maltreatment Act, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, and the FOIA itself," wrote Circuit Judge Doug Martin. "The Court finds that the Defendants violated FOIA by failing to produce these additional responsive records."

Joey McCutchen of Fort Smith, Rightsell's attorney, said it was a victory for transparency.

"We always felt that on this particular issue that the School District was hiding behind the Arkansas Child Maltreatment Act and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act to avoid being transparent, and we think the judge was being clear on that in his ruling," said McCutchen.

After a Nov. 29 bench trial in Huntsville, Martin wrote in an opinion letter that day that evidence presented at trial proved that at least one of the requested text messages the School District withheld wasn't protected from disclosure under the acts cited above.

After a private review of the documents in question, Martin found other documents that should have been provided to Rightsell under his Freedom of Information Act request.

In Wednesday's order, Martin wrote that McCutchen may submit a motion for attorneys fees and the school district shall pay the plaintiff's $190 cost of filing the lawsuit.

McCutchen said he's done about a dozen Freedom of Information Act lawsuits regarding school districts, and he doesn't usually ask for attorney's fees, but he will this time.

"We will be submitting a motion for attorneys fees because we feel like that's the only way to hold the school district accountable," said McCutchen. "Two lawyers spent a substantial part of the day in court and the preparation for that. We feel that we have substantially prevailed in this matter.

"For years and years, I did these for free, but if there's no accountability and no teeth, these districts are just going to continue to do it."

Initially, the lawsuit concerned violations of the state's open-meetings law. But the suit was expanded in two amended complaints to include accusations that the school district wasn't providing Rightsell with text messages and other documents as required by state law.

In the trial, attorneys for the school district argued that the documents concerned minors and should be kept private. McCutchen argued the school district had previously provided the documents to the Madison County Record, a weekly newspaper based in Huntsville.

In Martin's Nov. 29 opinion letter, he instructed both sides in the case to work together to submit a proposed order consistent with his letter.

On Dec. 15, they filed an order agreed upon by both sides in which the School District admitted to several violations of the Freedom of Information Act concerning public meetings. The School District admitted to not notifying the media about three meetings in which student discipline hearings would be conducted, and not preserving recordings of the public portion of those meetings for one year as required by state law. Parents can request that disciplinary hearings be held in private but the board must reconvene to vote in public.

In the Dec. 15 order, the School District also admitted to not notifying the media about two training sessions and not recording those sessions.

In the Nov. 29 letter, Martin agreed with the School District that it didn't violate the Freedom of Information Act by asking a reporter from the Madison County Record to leave an appeal hearing so she couldn't see the parents and students enter the building and thus identify them. The reporter could have returned for the public portion of the meeting, wrote Martin.

McCutchen said he believes Huntsville school officials should face criminal charges for negligently violating the law under Arkansas Code Annotated 25-19-104, which would be a misdemeanor.

"These prosecutors have always been bashful about perusing these things criminally, but when you've got this raw number of FOI violations, I think this rises to the level of criminal activity and should be criminally punished," said McCutchen.

Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett didn't respond to an email on Wednesday asking if he would file criminal charges in the case.

Steven S. Zega, attorney for the school district, said he had no comment after Martin's ruling on Wednesday.

Some of the student discipline hearings at the center of the case regarded allegations that surfaced early last year.

In response to those allegations, school administrators conducted an investigation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

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. They were ultimately expelled from school for a semester.

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.

McCutchen has also filed a lawsuit in federal court over the Title IX allegations.


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