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Huntsville paper argues lawsuit over student sexual abuse should remain open to the public

FAYETTEVILLE — A weekly newspaper in Madison County is asking to intervene in a federal lawsuit against Huntsville schools in opposition of a motion to limit pre-trial publicity in the case.

The Madison County Record filed the motion to intervene Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville. The paper argues it has an interest in protecting open proceedings for itself and the public, which creates a legal question between its interests and the School District’s motion to limit pretrial publicity, which was filed Monday.

The motion filed by the School District says the case and proceedings should be sealed to protect the identity of the victims and other children involved. In the motion to seal, the district argues the lawsuit provides information that could identify every child involved.

“The unfortunate reality is that the only way to protect all of these children from the consequences of decisions adults make is to seal these proceedings in their entirety,” according to the motion. “No live testimony and no record of this case — be it a pleading, motion, brief, court order or otherwise, should be open to the public without a prior order of this Court.”

Both state law and federal Title IX require identities of child victims, their families, perpetrators, witnesses and others, including those making a report, be kept confidential, according to the motion. The School District argues that extends to judicial proceedings.

The School District is also seeking a gag order to prohibit attorneys and participants from talking to the media about the case or talking about the case on social media to limit pretrial publicity about the case. The motion contends attorneys for the plaintiffs are attempting to try the case in the media.

Lawyers for the paper, John Tull and Noah Watson, say the Madison County Record is a local newspaper that has covered and will continue to cover the allegations of sexual harassment and assault in the Huntsville School District. The Record has also made requests to the School District under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act related to the alleged incidents, according to the motion.

“The parents whose children attend the district and the community as a whole have interests in these proceedings,” according to a brief in support of the motion to intervene. “Many of them keep informed by reading the Record. The district’s motion to limit pretrial publicity will harm the Record’s, the parents’, and the community’s interests in public access to the courts.”

The motion argues the paper doesn’t want to be part of the court fight over the allegations made in the lawsuit.

“Here, the Record does not seek to litigate this case on the merits,” according to the motion. “Instead, it wishes to intervene for the limited purpose of protecting the public’s right to the judicial proceedings, including the public statements of counsel and parties.”

The motion argues the public and the parents of children in the School District have especially important interests in a case where there are allegations the district failed to heed warnings about the existence of sexual harassment and assault occurring to children attending the district. The motion contends the School District, until recently, was supplying information to the Record, including the names of affected students.

The lawsuit was filed last month in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville by Rebecca Nelle on behalf of her child, identified as B.N.

In her suit, Nelle said the School District knew students on the boys middle school basketball team were being sexually harassed and assaulted by older boys and did little or nothing to stop it.

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 claims a hostile education environment was created that denied B.N. and other students access to educational opportunities.

The School District has denied liability and allegations in Nelle’s complaint. The district has also denied school officials knew of the abuse and did nothing about it.