A judge in Loudoun County, Virginia, ruled Tuesday that the school board does not have to release an independent review of how the school system handled two sexual assaults by a high school student last year.
The advocacy group Fight for Schools filed a petition in court last month to force the school system to release the review to the public. The group had argued that, since Superintendent Scott Ziegler in November heralded the probe as an independent investigation and intended it to soothe public anxiety over the incidents, it should be made public.
Last year, a teenager sexually assaulted two fellow high school students, one at Stone Bridge and another at Broad Run, leading Loudoun County Public Schools to commission the independent review. The 15-year-old was convicted of both assaults and is on supervised probation in a locked juvenile treatment facility until his 18th birthday.
Judge James Plowman said the firm was hired by the school board to conduct the investigation and offer legal advice for possible lawsuits against the school system. “It’s clearly attorney-client privilege material,” Plowman added.
William Porter, a principal with the law firm Blankingship & Keith, which conducted the review, said he identified himself as representing the Loudoun County School Board in every interview he did. He said hardbound copies of the report were handed to board members during a closed meeting, and collected after they were read.
The attorney for Fight for Schools said the firm was both doing investigation of the facts and providing legal advice in between the first and second assaults in schools.
Plowman said the suggestion of impropriety was “a leap,” and not substantiated.
The plaintiffs added that since the report was produced with public money and intended to defuse tensions, it should be released.
Lawyers for the school board said that “the public wants to know,” but that attorney-client privilege is “sacrosanct,” adding that “independent does not mean public.”
“We all acknowledge this is a sensitive issue,” Plowman said. “The public has an interest in finding out, and there’s been a lot of, what we’ll call public outcry. But this is clearly attorney-client privilege material.”
In an out-of-the-ordinary exchange, Plowman offered to review the report in camera — privately — “if it would help in moving forward.” While the lawyer for the school system was initially amenable to the judge reviewing the report, she said it wasn’t necessary, and the evidence presented in court should be enough. Despite the plaintiff’s argument that the judge reading the report “would go a long way” toward soothing community mistrust, Plowman said “I will not compel it,” saying his ruling should be based on evidence presented in court.
The judge added, “I’m sensitive that the public wants answers. Unfortunately, this is not the vehicle where the report will be turned over to the public.”
WTOP’s Kyle Cooper contributed to this report.