School Climate & Safety

How a Virginia District ‘Failed at Every Juncture’ to Prevent Sexual Assault

By Caitlynn Peetz — December 09, 2022 6 min read
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A Virginia district utterly failed to respond effectively to a sexual assault in one of its schools, leading to a second incident, according to a grand jury report that sheds light on an incident that drew attention and outrage from across the country last year.

The grand jury report, issued this week, offers key insights into how things fell apart in Loudoun County, Va. It’s also full of must-read insights for superintendents everywhere—including why the school board-superintendent relationship is so critical. And it illuminates how a media frenzy focused on transgender issues distracted from leadership failures within the district.

In October 2021, a female student was sexually assaulted by another student in a bathroom at a high school in Loudoun County, a large Northern Virginia district serving about 83,000 students. The assailant had been transferred to that school weeks earlier after sexually assaulting another student at his previous school, and while the initial case played out in court.

The school district faced fierce backlash after news broke about the first assault, some of which initially focused on its policy allowing transgender students to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity. Those reports suggested the assailant was wearing women’s clothing at the time of at least one of the attacks, which magnified the fury of prominent right-wing activists, politicians, and publications.

But the grand jury’s scathing report suggests the second assault was not a product of this policy. Rather, it called out widespread, repeated institutional failures, concluding that “a remarkable lack of curiosity and adherence to operating in silos,” by administrators “is ultimately to blame.”

In January, the boy accused of the assaults was sentenced to time in a residential treatment facility, probation until he is 18, and to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. (He was 14 at the time of the attacks.)

Through their attorneys, several of the district’s top leaders declined to answer questions or participate in the grand jury’s investigation. The report’s unveiling resulted in more consequences. Superintendent Scott Ziegler, was fired Dec. 7 in a unanimous vote by the school board, just one day after the report was released.

Here are some notable findings from the grand jury’s report.

1. Missed connections could have prevented the second assault

The grand jury’s scathing report suggests the second assault was the product of repeated institutional failures.It outlines several missed opportunities to identify and elevate the assailant’s problematic behavior, which could have prevented the assaults, the report says.

For example, before the first assault, a teaching assistant sent an email about the assailant to her superiors, detailing concerning interactions with other female students. But neither the school’s department chair nor its principal intervened or asked follow-up questions—a pivotal mistake, the report says. Sixteen days after the email was sent, the student committed the first sexual assault.

In July 2021, the student was transferred to another high school, though little information was provided to school staff about why. Then, in September, two female students asked to be moved away from the assailant in art class because he followed them around and made them uncomfortable. The teacher reported the incident to the principal, but the principal did not inform the teacher of the previous incident or even that the assailant was a recent transfer.

A few days later, the male student made comments about nude photos to two classmates. Ziegler and other administrators were made aware of the incident, and knew it was the same student who had been accused of sexual assault at another school and chose to give him only a verbal warning, the grand jury report says. The second sexual assault happened less than a month later.

The report compels Loudoun schools to reexamine its transfer process to require “more vigorous cooperation and communication” between the principals of the schools involved, as well as other administrators and the attorney’s office or court system, as applicable.

2. Early speculation about the role of student’s gender identity not a focal point

When administrators first met to discuss the initial sexual assault in May 2021, the meeting invite said it was an issue related to its transgender student policy. (State law required every district to establish such a policy on trans students, though details differ from district to district.) But the issue of the assailant’s gender identity is not discussed in the grand jury’s report, suggesting its members did not find it relevant to the case.

The boy’s gender identity has not been confirmed publicly by authorities. His mother has said publicly he is not transgender.

In the fallout from the attacks, the county’s school board meetings were thrust into the national spotlight as an example of heated debates about race, gender, and sexuality.

3. School board members were left in the dark

Throughout the investigation communications broke down between the superintendent and school board—a notable failure that prohibited the board from doing its core job of supervising the district and its initiatives.

At a meeting in June 2021, after Ziegler and other top administrators had been notified and briefed about the first assault in May of the same year, the superintendent told the school board there weren’t “any records of assaults occurring in our restrooms,” according to the grand jury report.

Ziegler later said he thought he was answering the question in relation to transgender student policies.

Later, following the October assault, when news broke publicly that the two assaults were committed by the same student, school board members asked for more information and updates from Ziegler several times. He declined each time, citing an ongoing investigation, according to emails included in the grand jury’s report.

The report says the school board “both as a body and its individual members, were deliberately deprived of information regarding these incidents.”

4. Top administrators obfuscated and hid behind confidentiality laws

When the sexual assaults made headlines and prompted widespread speculation, top administrators went to great lengths to conceal key information that could have provided clarity and eased tensions.

The grand jury’s report alleges that Ziegler and other administrators “were looking out for their own interests instead of the best interests” of the district, which “led to a stunning lack of openness, transparency, and accountability both to the public and the special grand jury.”

It was part of a pattern of concealing information or obfuscating, the report said. After the first assault happened, school officials sent a message to the community, alerting them to the presence of police on school property. But the message vaguely blamed an unruly parent (the victim’s father, who arrived after being notified of the incident) and made no mention of the alleged sexual assault—a choice the district said was made to protect student privacy.

But the report says the district’s top leaders oversimplified the definition of confidentiality and attorney-client privilege to prevent sharing critical information with the school community.

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