Grand jury condemns Virginia county school officials’ handling of sex assaults

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Loudoun County Public Schools buses on March 12, 2020, in Leesburg, Va..

A special grand jury has released a report condemning officials in a Virginia school district over for their handling of a pair of sexual assaults committed by the same student last year that drew significant attention and anger.

The investigation was authorized by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) in early January as one of their first acts in office. The grand jury was charged with investigating how Loudoun County Public Schools responded to the assaults, which took place in May and October 2021. Youngkin and Miyares’s actions followed months of community outrage, aimed largely at Loudoun school officials’ decision to transfer the student assailant away from one high school campus after his first assault, only to see him commit a second sexual assault at the second campus five months later.

The jury’s impaneling also came after Youngkin and Miyares repeatedly referenced the Loudoun assaults in their campaigns, blaming the school system – and U.S. public education generally – for a lack of transparency and failure to support parents’ rights. The incident also became a national issue in the heated debate over transgender student rights, especially bathroom access.

During the first assault, which took place in a girls’ bathroom, the student was reportedly dressed in women’s clothes: a finding Monday’s jury report corroborates. This gave ammunition to opponents of school policies that permit transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identities – although there is no evidence the male student is transgender and, at the time of the first assault, Loudoun determined bathroom access by biological sex.

In a 91-page report published Monday, the jury concluded that Loudoun administrators badly mismanaged the sexual assaults, citing incompetence and a lack of interest in the events. But the jury also found there was no “coordinated cover-up” of the assaults between Loudoun school officials and the school board, as some had alleged. Instead, the school board was mostly kept in the dark about the assaults, the jury found. And the jury concluded the incident demonstrated a lamentable “breakdown of communication amongst multiple parties,” including the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, the Loudoun County Juvenile Court Service Unit and the Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

The report also says Loudoun Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler lied about the incident at a June 2021 board meeting, denying a sexual assault had occurred in a school bathroom when he knew such an assault had taken place. The superintendent has previously said he misunderstood the question, and that he thought the board member was asking whether the school had records of bathroom assaults committed by transgender or gender-fluid students.

“We believe that throughout this ordeal LCPS administrators were looking out for their own interests instead of the best interests of LCPS,” the report states. “This invariably led to a stunning lack of openness, transparency, and accountability.”

The report adds: “There were several decision points for senior LCPS administrators, up to and including the superintendent, to be transparent and step in and alter the sequence of events leading up to the [second] sexual assault. They failed at every juncture.”

Miyares said in an interview that the grand jury is continuing to work, but declined to comment on whether the panel might issue any criminal charges in connection with its findings.

Loudoun County School Board Chair Jeff Morse and Vice Chair Ian Serotkin said in a statement Monday that they are pleased that the investigation found “no evidence of criminal conduct” and that no indictments have been filed as of Monday. Morse and Serotkin also emphasized the report’s conclusion that no school-led coverup of the assaults took place, contradicting Miyares’s assertion in January that school officials had smothered news of the sexual assault for political gain.

Still, the report “contains several criticisms of LCPS employees and processes within the Division that are quite serious,” Morse and Serotkin wrote. “We are placing this on our next agenda for immediate discussion [and] to take action.”

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report Monday. The Loudoun County Juvenile Court Service Unit declined to comment.

Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj said in an interview that the information shared about the case was “at times sparse, incomplete or untimely” and that officials need to establish better communication protocols.

“The lesson that we should take away is that we can’t continue to operate in silos when the safety of our children, or anyone in the community, is at stake,” Biberaj said. “We invite all the involved entities to come together and move forward towards developing comprehensive responses to such matters.”

The Loudoun superintendent previously apologized for the school’s management of the incident and vowed reforms to school policies related to the handling of sexual harassment and assaults.

Miyares praised the work of the grand jury in an interview and said many officials failed the victims of the sexual assaults.

“It should be a great message to our school boards and our administrators about the need for accountability and transparency,” Miyares said. “I think it was clear to me there was a breakdown at multiple levels of communication. . . . I think there was a breakdown in the urgency for student safety.”

The grand jury heard testimony from more than 40 witnesses and reviewed more than 100 pieces of evidence, the jurors wrote in the report. It is not typical for a special grand jury to release a report of its findings – the jury is not required to do so under Virginia law – but jurors wrote that overwhelming public interest in the case, as well as a desire to improve Loudoun’s handling of school sexual assaults, compelled them to produce the report.

“While we do not go into every detail we have learned, we want to share high level thoughts with the community in an easily digestible manner and provide some recommendations in hopes that similar events will never occur again,” the report states.

The report suggests Loudoun should increase the information it sends to parents and staffers about significant incidents that take place on school property, that it should reexamine the process it uses to transfer students between schools, and that the school system’s director of safety and security should become “more involved” in handling school crises. The report also says the school board should take steps to provide more information to the public, rather than shielding it behind “attorney-client privilege,” and that Loudoun must provide added supports to help faculty and staff deal with challenging scenarios at school.

Overall, the report states, the sheriff’s office, the school system, the attorney’s office and the court service unit should take steps to improve their “communication, cooperation and coordination” when addressing criminal conduct by students, faculty or staff.

The report states that Ziegler and Sheriff Mike Chapman have a dysfunctional relationship.

“Several witnesses testified the sheriff and the superintendent are not on speaking terms,” the report says. “The citizens of Loudoun County deserve better than two high-profile individuals publicly squabbling and refusing to put aside any petty differences.”

The report offers a detailed chronology of events related to the two assaults, the first of which took place on May 28, 2021, between the assailant, who was then 15, and a female student in a girls’ bathroom at Stone Bridge High School. That assault began as a consensual encounter arranged ahead of time on a messaging platform, the jury wrote in its report, but the male student became aggressive and held the female’s arms down as he raped her.

The second assault took place on Oct. 6, 2021, at Broad Run High School when the male student “snatched an unassuming female out of the hallway, abducted her into an empty classroom, nearly asphyxiated her, and sexually assaulted her,” the report states. On that day the student was arrested and taken into custody, where he has remained. In court, he was ultimately found responsible for one of the assaults and pleaded no contest to the second assault. The student was then enrolled in a residential treatment facility where he will remain on probation until he turns 18.

The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault or defendants charged as juveniles.

The report cites instances in which teachers or school officials flagged the male student’s behavior as concerning but received no response from higher-level administrators. For example, about two weeks before the male student committed the first assault, a teaching assistant at Stone Bridge wrote to a fellow teacher and the department chair to warn that the teen has “a problem with listening and keeping his hands to himself,” noting that the student had several times touched female classmates inappropriately. The assistant added that “if this kind of reckless behavior persists, I wouldn’t want to be held accountable if someone should get hurt.”

No one bothered to follow up on this email, the report states.

This “lack of communication [and] general lack of curiosity” also characterized the process by which officials transferred the student between schools, the report says. In July, soon after committing the first assault, the male student received two petitions – arrest warrants for juveniles – and was briefly detained at the Loudoun County Juvenile Detention Center. A court order issued as part of his release mandated that he could not return to Stone Bridge High School.

The principal of Stone Bridge then called the principal of Broad Run to initiate an involuntary student transfer and mentioned on the phone call that the student was facing a sexual assault charge. According to the report, the Broad Run principal asked no further questions. The Broad Run principal also failed to communicate to high-level staff that the male student would be required to wear an ankle monitor or that sexual assault charges were pending against him, the report states.

Soon after the male student enrolled at Broad Run, staff members again tried to raise the alarm about his conduct. Two female students in a graphic design class asked to be moved away from the student, who they said was bothering them. Then, on Sept. 9, 2021, the male student made inappropriate sexual comments to a female student and grabbed her shoulder “really hard,” the report states. This incident spurred conversations about a possible Title IX violation – conversations included the Loudoun chief of staff, the director of school administration and the deputy superintendent.

Rather than open a Title IX case, officials left disciplinary procedures to the principal, who offered “a verbal reprimand” to the male student, the report states.

“The most senior individuals in LCPS knew about this incident and knew it was the same person who had committed the May 28, 2021 sexual assault,” the report states. “Not a single person with knowledge of the student’s history or of this current action stepped in to do anything.”

The report also notes failures of communication and cooperation between agencies.

In one example, Loudoun County’s juvenile intake office was supposed to notify the Loudoun superintendent that the male student involved in the assaults had been formally charged with a crime. But employees of this office did not call, email or mail the superintendent, the report states. Instead, the juvenile intake office tried to notify the superintendent by placing documentation of the charge in an envelope that school officials were supposed to pick up at the courthouse.

The report states that it is unclear what happened to the envelope, which was incorrectly addressed, after it was picked up from the courthouse. And “there was no effort from juvenile intake to confirm receipt” of the envelope, the report says.

In another example, the report says that lack of timely, accurate communication between the Loudoun school system and sheriff’s office was in part responsible for the school district’s “delinquency” in opening a Title IX investigation into the sexual assault that took place at Stone Bridge High School.

And the report takes Ziegler, the superintendent, to task for his statement at a June 22, 2021, school board meeting. By that point, Ziegler knew about the assault, the report says; he had been informed of the May assault on the day it occurred. But, when asked by a board member whether Loudoun has “assaults in our bathrooms or in our locker rooms regularly?” Ziegler replied with a falsehood, the report states.

Ziegler said that “to my knowledge we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms.” A witness called this a “baldfaced lie.” The jury agreed.

The report further criticizes the Loudoun school system and school board for refusing to cooperate with the jury during its investigation, charging that school officials pursued tactics of “obfuscation, deflection, and obvious legal strategies designed to frustrate the special grand jury’s work.” The school board at one point sued to stop the grand jury, but was unsuccessful.

The report also raises questions regarding whether the first sexual assault was tied to a controversial policy that Loudoun implemented allowing transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identities. That policy, known as Policy 8040, took effect months after the male student committed his first sexual assault in a girls’ bathroom.

Loudoun officials have repeatedly denied any connection. But the report notes that, on May 28, shortly after the first assault occurred, Loudoun’s chief operating officer sent an email to the superintendent and senior staffers scheduling a meeting about the assault. The chief operating officer wrote in his message that “the incident at [Stone Bridge High School] is related to policy 8040.”

The jury was unable to discover the substance of this meeting, the report says, and the report makes no attempt to explain how the assault could have been related to Policy 8040, which was not in effect at the time. The report notes, however, that Loudoun’s chief operating officer later testified to the jury that the male student was wearing girls’ clothes during the assault in the bathroom. The Stone Bridge principal testified to the jury that at the May 28 meeting he told the staff “what had occurred that day,” the report says.

“Nobody else we questioned about this meeting, however, could recall the contents of the discussion, which we view as critical to a fuller understanding of why LCPS officials acted in the manner they did in the ensuing months,” the jury’s report states. “We believe there was intentional institutional amnesia regarding this meeting.”