Barnhill exits amid mysterious exchange of text messages

Dean of students Randy Barnhill can be seen departing the Huntsville High School campus Tuesday morning, escorted by a school resource officer and a Madison County sheriff’s deputy.

Dean of students at Huntsville High School Randy Barnhill on Tuesday morning was seen being escorted from the high school by a school resource officer and a Madison County sheriff’s deputy.

“It’s personnel and we’re taking care of it. I can’t comment,” Superintendent of Huntsville School District Dennis Fisher said as he stood outside the high school on Tuesday morning before entering the building.  

When contacted by the Record on Tuesday morning, Barnhill stated he had “no comment.” When asked if he were still employed by the district, he again stated he had “no comment,” and hung up.

By Tuesday afternoon, Fisher added more information and stated Barnhill had resigned. Asked when he tendered his resignation, Fisher said “today.” Asked if Barnhill had resigned when he was escorted from the building, Fisher repeated all he could say was that he resigned “today.”

These events occurred the morning after the Huntsville School District School Board called a special meeting in which members went into executive session, stating they were going to discuss personnel matters.

The Madison County Record went on record objecting to the terms used as a violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Arkansas Code Annotated section 25-19-101, et. seq., states that when a board goes into executive session, members must offer specific reasons in the public forum as to why they are adjourning into a private, closed session. They must specify whether the board is considering “employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of any public officer or employee.”

A Record reporter objected after the board refused to state with specificity the reason it was going behind closed doors. After meeting for two-and-one-half hours, the board reassembled and took no action concerning what transpired during the closed session.

However, Tuesday morning, Barnhill was seen being escorted from the high school.

On Monday, the Record was able to view text messages that appeared to originate from a person possessing direct knowledge of certain specific plays of the Huntsville High School football team. The texts contained descriptions of the football plays and were sent to a phone number appearing to belong to Elkins Head Football Coach Bryan Hutson. Huntsville lost to Elkins on Friday night, 35-0.

    The week before HHS played Elkins in football, an exchange of text messages was sent from someone with direct knowledge of HHS football plays and signals to someone that appears to be an Elkins football team coach.

Officials wouldn’t confirm Barnhill was the other person exchanging texts. However, one of the text messages from the person knowledgeable about Huntsville football plays and strategies texted: “I get to call west fork and green forest Friday.” The Record has verified that Barnhill officiated the West Fork/Green Forest game.

The phone number of one of the people exchanging texts appears to belong to Hutson, who previously has answered that number when the Record has reached out to him for football information. A message left on that number was not returned before press time on Tuesday.

The text messages begin with both sports officials downplaying their teams’ talent, with the Elkins person stating that HHS “will kill us,” and then writing that “My QB did pretty well 11-12 for 275 and 4tds,” in a game Elkins played against West Fork the previous week.

    The Elkins person asks later in a text if Huntsville has any speed and the Huntsville person names a specific sophomore as having speed.

    As the week and the text exchanges progress, the Elkins person asks if the HHS person has “Any more ‘words’ of wisdom? Words for screen?? Ha.” The Huntsville person responds, “I didn’t ask. I will try to find out.”

As the texts progress during a period of approximately six days, the HHS person begins to tell the Elkins person what pass routes Huntsville runs and what specific signals to look for when the HHS coaching staff calls plays.

The Huntsville person writes, “Just tell the kids to listen for up or down. If you see the signal person pull on his shirt. That’s check with me. Don’t jump.” The Huntsville person also tells the Elkins person to “kick ass tonight.”

Again in a later exchange, the Huntsville person says, “Watch who’s signaling plays in. Thumb up is to the right. Thumb down is to the left.”

The Huntsville person then proceeds to give the Elkins person specific signals and plays that would describe what play to run, when the HHS football players would run certain plays and what direction the players would go with the play.

After Elkins defeated Huntsville on Friday night, a text message sent from the Elkins person, read: “We won. The coaches said something about you talking to me. Said they had something. I didn’t know what they were talking about. They were pissed.”  The Huntsville person responded with an expletive: “F*** them” and “call me.”

Derek Walter with the Arkansas Activities Association said he had never heard of a situation in which someone employed by a teams’ school would give play calls and other secretive information to the opposing team.

“We don’t have any rule that would explain what you described to me and it would be a district decision,” Walter said.

“As of right now, this is the first we’re hearing about it and any future inquiry would have to come from the school administrator,” he said. “Any future inquiries would have to come from the individual district.”

In 2015, Barnhill was hired as assistant coach of the Eagles. He was promoted to head coach in 2016. The next year, the Eagles went 2-8 and last year finished 2-8 amid a move up to the larger 5A conference.

In January, the school board approved the transfer of Barnhill from head football coach and dean of students to full-time dean of students only. His salary didn’t change.

Hutson began coaching at Elkins in 2018.

Potential FOIA

Violations

The Huntsville School Board went into executive session on Monday night for two and one half hours stating during the public meeting that the members were going to discuss personnel. They came back into the open meeting and took no action on the closed session.

However, the next day, Barnhill was escorted from the high school building.

According to John Tull, an attorney for the Record and a noted expert in FOIA law, the school board appeared to have violated the FOIA in two ways.

First, the board members failed to state specifically what personnel action they would discuss.    

The law states that executive sessions will be permitted only for the purpose of considering “employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining, or resignation of any public officer or employee.” Because the list of reasons why a governing board must go into executive session is exhaustive, the board must be able to point to a specific item in the list that permits the executive session. Following the secret session, the body must reassemble in public to vote formally on the matter.    

The school board did not state Monday night what personnel decision it was going to discuss and took no action after reassembling.

The board also appeared to have violated FOIA by not taking a vote in public and by appearing to give the superintendent instructions to make a personnel decision. “If the meeting was concerning (Barnhill) and he was discussed and instruction was given (to Fisher) and no vote was taken, then it’s a violation,” Tull said.

Fisher was summoned into the closed session at Monday night’s meeting, although it was not clear why.

The law states that a person who negligently violates any of the provisions of FOIA shall be guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.

The Record reached out to the following for comment but did not receive a response by press time:  School Board President Danny Thomas, school board member Duane Glenn, Hutson and Elkins School District Superintendent Jeremy Mangrum.

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