‘We’ve lost trust’: Fairfax Co. superintendent speaks to Glasgow families about ex-school counselor

Fairfax County Superintendent Michelle Reid at Glasgow Middle School on Aug. 25, 2022. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

Fairfax County parent Staci Ali-Ibrahim sat at the end of a long table at Glasgow Middle School Thursday night, and asked Superintendent Michelle Reid why Virginia’s largest school system doesn’t have a clear plan in place to ensure they are notified by law enforcement when a staff member is arrested and charged with a crime.

Ali-Ibrahim’s son, she said, worked with former Glasgow counselor Darren Thornton. Thornton was arrested in November 2020 for solicitation of a minor in Chesterfield County as part of an online sting operation. But he remained a county employee despite being convicted and ordered to register as a sex offender.

Reid, in her first year leading the school system, briefly paused and then turned to Ali-Ibrahim’s son sitting on the same side of the bench.

“I am so sorry,” Reid said.

Ali-Ibrahim was one of some two dozen parents who attended a community meeting at Glasgow on Thursday, questioning school officials about how Thornton remained employed until he had been arrested a second time in June 2022.

The group urged Reid to be transparent about the results of an independent, third-party review into the incident that she commissioned and recommended the county review hiring processes and conduct background checks on employees more regularly.

“It is clear that as a school division, we’ve made some mistakes,” Reid said. “It’s my responsibility now moving forward to make sure our house is in order.”

Reid said she met with Fairfax County police Chief Kevin Davis and County Executive Bryan Hill on Wednesday to ensure that the county has a plan for communicating incidents involving school system employees. The complication in the Thornton case, she said, likely came because “we were dealing with an out-of-county arrest and an out-of-county conviction that didn’t get communicated.”

School board member Ricardy Anderson, whose district includes Glasgow, said Thornton had last been in the school in March.

A final report with findings is expected to be complete by early September, Reid said, adding that she has directed the human resources department to review “every employee record to make sure we have an accurate background check and references and licenses.”

Thornton did pass the background check when he was hired in 2020, Reid said, adding that current Principal Victor Powell was not the principal of Glasgow when Thornton started working in the school.

Another parent questioned the timing of Thornton’s exit, noting his child’s appointments with Thornton started being canceled and he had no idea why that was happening.

Reid said she has directed the students’ new counselor to meet face-to-face with kids affected by the incident.

Questions have been raised about how Thornton was able to stay on the job for 20 months, after his first arrest in the sting operation in Chesterfield in November 2020. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Chesterfield police told WTOP that the department sent three emails in November 2020 to two different email addresses for then-Superintendent Scott Brabrand, which they said were provided to a police staff member from someone in the school system’s office.

Karen Leonard, the records administrator for the Chesterfield Police Department, said in an email Monday that the department conducted “further investigation” and learned that the emails were returned to the department as undeliverable.

Thornton was also arrested June 9, 2022, following a separate sting operation and charged with soliciting a prostitute and “frequenting a bawdy place.” Chesterfield County police Chief Jeffrey Katz said he was surprised to see Thornton still listed on the Fairfax County Public Schools website as a counselor after his first arrest. The next day, Katz said, the Chesterfield County Police Department’s special victims unit supervisor called the school system to report the arrest.

Thornton was placed on leave June 17 and fired earlier this month. Reid, the superintendent, said she learned about the incident July 28. She took over for Brabrand on July 1. Brabrand told WTOP he didn’t have a comment on the matter.

Thornton was required to register as a sex offender, but Virginia State Police said Thursday that Thornton provided false information and incomplete paperwork to state police on two separate occasions during his registration process. He’s also been charged with providing false information to the state’s sex offender registry.

Earlier this week, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and School Board Chair Rachna Sizemore Heizer wrote a letter urging the Virginia General Assembly to make changes in the process of sharing arrest and conviction information.

“It’s very troubling,” McKay told WTOP. “It’s very scary, the fact that there’s no requirement to record a person’s name to verify that notification has happened. There’s no paper trail.”

“We would put in place parameters and guidelines that all counties have to follow. And then in the longer term, we will be looking at a much, much more sophisticated way to do this other than to rely on a county employee in one jurisdiction reaching out to somebody in another jurisdiction and being done with it,” McKay said.

The letter said they welcome a discussion of the limitations of current laws and practices and are “ready to work” with the delegation on “meaningful reforms” to help protect students and the community.

At Glasgow Middle School on Thursday, Reid said she knows it will take time for the school system to regain the community’s trust.

“What you need is some confidence that things are going to be different and that we won’t see this result again,” Reid said. “I know we have to rebuild trust, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

WTOP’s Rick Massimo, Jack Moore and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk started working at WTOP in 2016 and has lived in Howard County, Maryland, her entire life. She's thrilled to be a reporter for WTOP telling stories on air. She works as both a television and radio reporter in the Maryland and D.C. areas. 

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