The Arkansas Times has also acquired various supporting documents used as sources for the story, as well as the communications of district and school officials taking action to quash the story and threatening disciplinary action against the teacher who serves as the newspaper's adviser. One of the materials used in the Har-ber High School Herald's reporting — a video of a transfer student's parent burning gear and yelling epithets about the Har-Ber High School football coach in the presence of the Springdale football coach — remains on YouTube, where it was originally uploaded when the story was published.
The Har-Ber High School Herald's story came after a months-long investigation into the transfer of six varsity players from Har-Ber to Springdale High School, its arch-rival within the Springdale Public School District, at the end of the fall semester in 2017. The district swiftly responded by requesting that the stories be immediately taken down, then refused to authorize re-publishing them. District Superintendent Jim Rollins stated that the stories could not be published because they were “intentionally negative, demeaning, derogatory, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students addressed in those articles” and "extremely divisive and disruptive to the Springdale School District’s educational community.”
Har-Ber High School's own administration followed up by shutting down publication of the Herald until the District could “establish protocols for how these student publications will be published in the future,” including halting the publication of the new edition that was scheduled for later that week. In a memo to Karla Sprague, the teacher who advises the newspaper, Har-Ber principal Paul Griep wrote, “Until these protocols are finalized, it is my expectation and the expectation of the district, that no student publications will be printed, posted online, or distributed until they are reviewed by building/district administration." Failure to follow that directive, he wrote, would lead to disciplinary action and potentially termination.
The day after the memo, Griep followed up with a written reprimand. “I asked to review the article before it was published,” he wrote. “You indicated that it was not general practice for an administrator to review the contents of the newspaper before it was published. I indicated that I understood previous practice, however I wanted to review the contents.” In publishing the paper without prior review from him, Griep wrote, “You were purposefully insubordinate, and such blatant and gross insubordination will not be tolerated." He concluded: "Your job is in jeopardy."
In the reprimand, Griep claimed, “My goal was not to censor the work of the paper, rather to review the document and to ensure accuracy in the content.”
State law offers protections for student publications, mandating that school policies must "recognize that students may exercise their right of expression." Griep argued in his reprimand letter that suppressing the Herald stories did not violate the law: “Due to the bullying contained in the articles and the disruption to the operation of school, these articles are not protected by either Springdale School District Policy-IGDB or the Arkansas Student Publications Act.”
Worth noting here the comments of Har-Ber senior Halle Roberts, the Herald's editor in chief, to Buzzfeed: “What was so unexpected was that our administration was not standing up for us. It’s just a slap in the face.”
The Herald raised questions about whether the proper protocols and procedures were followed by the district in allowing the transfers. The paper — staffed by a newspaper class of 10 students — also dug up documents regarding the requests of five of the six transfer students for a "hardship exception" to eligibility rules, allowing them to play football this year for Springdale High. A source provided the paper with 50 pages of documents, responsive to a Freedom of Information Act request, that includes the parents' letters requesting the hardship exception to retain eligibility to play football, Springdale High's requests to the Arkansas Activities Association to grant the hardship exceptions for the students, and the AAA's replies granting the requests.
The Times has acquired those materials. Although student names and information such as grades have been redacted, we're not going to link to them here because the parent letters describe some personal and academic details about the students. But I have reviewed them and can confirm the summary offered by the Herald: Each parent letter follows a similar blueprint, describing that the student's reasons for transferring were due to academics — in particular, the opportunity to participate in Springdale High's IT Academy.
The hardship exceptions were granted by the AAA under Rule 16-A-8, which allows students to retain athletic eligibility after transferring in the case of "an extreme and unusual circumstance exists that is no fault of the student of the parents." Under the district's rules, students cannot be recruited to transfer or transfer simply to play on a different team.
However, interviews that the Herald conducted with the students themselves suggest that the transfers may have been motivated by football considerations, at least from the perspective of the students. "We just want to go over there because we have a better chance of getting scholarships and playing at D1," said one. "We feel like the coaching staff over there will help us perform better."
Another: "I just feel like it's better for my future to go out there and get college looks. I feel like Springdale does a better job of that." Another: "I feel like I can showcase my talent more over there. I can just stand out more over there, and the coaches will put my name out there more." Another: "I plan on playing at a Division 1 college football level, so if I want to get there, I really feel like going to Springdale would be the best ... to get there."
The Herald also reported on a video taken in December of 2017 by one of the Har-Ber football players who transferred to Springdale the following semester. The video depicts a gathering with beers around a bonfire at the end of football season. In the video, Mike Pounders, a player's father, is shown burning Har-Ber gear, and wildly yelling epithets about Har-Ber coach Chris Wood.
Watching this take place while holding a beer himself, the Herald reported, was Zak Clark, the head coach at Springdale High — the school where the Har-Ber student transferred to the next month, and then successfully applied for an exemption allowing him to play football this year.
The father's expletive-laced tirade expresses displeasure over the football program at Har-Ber:
Missa Coach Wood doesn’t know how to fucking coach football. We're burning all his shit to fucking hell!
This one goes to Chris Wood. Trying to call plays and fucking do everything else. It’s culture over strategy! And he ain’t got either one of those motherfuckers! He gone goddamnit! He gone!
The Times acquired a copy of this video; we also discovered that it remains up on YouTube.
The Herald also reported on text messages, acquired by Freedom of Information Act, between Pounders and Clark about the video.
Here is the full exchange between the two, beginning with texts from Pounders — the two apparently discuss that Har-Ber coaches have gotten ahold of the video, which might raise questions about recruitment given Clark's presence at the bonfire while the student was still enrolled at Har-Ber. Pounders tells Clark, "the video doesn't prove anything ... but it is funny as shit." Clark agrees: "Yes it was!" See related PDF
The Herald story noted that AAA rules regarding hardship exemptions state: "The petition shall not be authorized if the director obtains reliable information that the student is transferring to the petitioning school primarily for athletic purposes or as a result of inducement or recruitment."
It likewise noted that in his response to the Springdale principal granting the exemptions, the AAA executive director advised: “If the situation should change, an immediate review of the case would be necessary.”