‘They failed at every juncture’: Grand jury report on how Loudoun Co. Public Schools responded to sexual assaults

The report from a special grand jury looking into Loudoun County, Virginia’s response to two in-school sexual assaults by the same student in 2021 faults the school system for “a stunning lack of openness,” adding that administrators missed multiple chances to prevent the second assault from happening.

The grand jury issued no indictments in its report Monday, and said there was no “coordinated coverup” between the school system and members of the school board. Indeed, they said, the board was kept in the dark about the reaction to the first assault, and only found out that the same student committed both assaults from media reports.

But the report says “adherence to operating in silos” by school administrators and “a breakdown of communication” that included the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, Court Services Unit and commonwealth’s attorney’s office, led to the second assault in October 2021 at Broad Run High School. It happened after multiple people, including the assailant’s own mother and grandmother, warned law enforcement about him.

Perhaps the harshest criticisms in the report are reserved for Superintendent Scott Ziegler, who, the report says, made a false statement about sexual assaults at a school board meeting and signed off on an email to the Stone Bridge High School community the day of the first sexual assault that didn’t mention the incident.

“They failed at every juncture,” the report said of school system officials.

Attorney General Jason Miyares, who impaneled the grand jury, told WTOP, “The grand jury report showed multiple instances where the Loudoun County public school administrators dropped the ball.” He added that he hoped the report served as “a warning to every single school board in the Commonwealth” as an example of “what not to do” in a similar situation.

“The lack of accountability and the lack of transparency … was absolutely galling,” he said.

He added that, although no one has been indicted yet, the grand jury is still sitting, “and our office is considering all options.”

School Board Chair Jeff Morse and Vice Chair Ian Serotkin said in a statement that they are  “pleased that the Special Grand Jury’s extensive investigation found no evidence of criminal conduct on the part of anyone within LCPS.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj said in a statement, “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.”

She added, “We stand ready and willing to work with our community partners to establish a ‘formalized protocol emphasizing better communication,’ as recommended by the Grand Jury.”

They cited a January news release from Miyares saying that the school system “covered up a sexual assault on school grounds for political gain,” and noted that the report concluded there was none.

They added that criticisms of school employees and policies were “serious” and would be discussed at the board’s next meeting.

The first assault

The report details that there was concern about the student before the first assault, which happened May 28, 2021. A teacher’s assistant at Stone Bridge High School emailed another teacher and her department head on May 12, saying the student has a problem with “keeping his hands to himself” and added, “I wouldn’t want to be held accountable if someone should get hurt.”

One of the recipients testified that she didn’t follow up because she didn’t “want to invade the student’s privacy.”

At noon on May 28, the two students met in a handicapped-accessible stall in the girls’ bathroom, and the boy, who was 15 at the time, sexually assaulted her.

The report says school officials knew about the assault, and that the assailant was “missing.” He was found an hour later while leaving the school at regular dismissal.

“We are dismayed at the lack of concern regarding the assailant being at-large in the school for over three hours and believe the school should have been locked down to find the individual,” the grand jury said in the report.

Later that day, Ziegler, who was interim superintendent at the time, met with other system staff. The report said that no one questioned about the meeting could recall what was discussed.

“We believe there was intentional institutional amnesia regarding this meeting,” the report said.

A couple of hours after the assault, the girl’s father came to the school and was eventually escorted out after trying to get into the school to see his daughter, who was with her mother, the report said.

Later that afternoon, two very different emails were sent out regarding the incident, the report said.

At 4:10 p.m., Ziegler emailed the school board, mentioning the sexual assault a well as the ejection of the girl’s father, who “caused a disruption.”

At 4:46, Stone Bridge Principal Tim Flynn emailed the school community about the incident regarding the student’s father, but did not mention the sexual assault. The email was approved by Ziegler, among others, the report said.

That was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. That Tuesday, June 2, Stone Bridge High School decided, in the absence of a formal school system policy, to temporarily allow the assailant to come back to school, but kept him separated from the victim. The report said the assailant deleted conversations from the Discord discussion app that could have been used as evidence.

The June school board meeting

The Loudoun County School Board meeting of June 22, 2021, made national headlines, particularly because of the arrest and removal of the father of the girl who was sexually assaulted.

The report says that the arrest was the result of “a personal altercation,” and not “directly related” to the school board’s actions at the meeting. It does, however, say that as a result of the meeting, “the calculus changed” on the question of arresting the boy.

While the Sheriff’s Office told school officials that the sexual assault allegations were a “shaky case,” he was arrested in early July.

The communication between the school system and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office broke down at this point, the report says: The Sheriff’s Office notified the school system about the charges, but the school system said it never received the report.

The grand jury found that rather than call or email the superintendent’s office with the report, the Sheriff’s Office sent it via an inter-office envelope, addressed to someone who hadn’t worked in the superintendent’s office for seven years.

“It is unclear what happened to the envelope,” the report said.

Ziegler said later during that meeting that “to my knowledge we don’t have any record of assaults happening in our bathrooms.” One witness called that “a bald-faced lie.”

A board member emailed the superintendent, and in a second email copied the school board, asking for updates on the case. The superintendent said “I am unable to provide an update,” citing the law enforcement investigation.

The assaults received outsize attention because the student who was convicted in both attacks is a biological male who wore a skirt in one of the attacks, playing into a national debate over how schools should treat transgender students and whether they should be allowed to use restrooms different than their biological sex.

The report also accuses school administrators and lawyers of stonewalling the special grand jury’s investigation. The report notes that school board members went out of their way in testimony to describe the assailant’s attire as a kilt rather than a skirt, something the report suggests was a coordinated effort by the school system’s legal team to push a coordinated narrative about what occurred.

Red flags

From there, more warning signs piled up: The assailant was in custody for 14 days, and his probation officer reported that he “has adjusted a little too easily to this experience and doesn’t appear to have any real concerns at the moment.”

Later that month, the assailant was released to his grandmother while his mother was away. After that time, she called his probation officer and called her grandson a “sociopath” who “does not care about consequences.”

The assailant’s mother also told that probation officer that she had “been begging for help from the schools for a year,” but that the school system had discounted “my approach and recommendations with respect to his reasoning and actions.”

After the May incident, she said the principal at Stone Bridge told her, “Now we are listening.”

She added, “I strongly encourage us not to wait until another escalation in events before buckling down or else he will be another statistic in the adult circuit instead of exploring the greater potential he holds.”

The student was transferred to Broad Run High School; the report calls the transfer “haphazard” and says the student wasn’t even able to begin attending classes until several days later. The principal knew of the allegations but didn’t look at the student’s disciplinary file, the report said.

On Sept. 9, an English teacher reported to the principal that girls in the class were uncomfortable because the student was following them. Separately, he asked multiple students about posting nude photos online, according to the report.

The only punishment was an admonishment and requiring him to “write on a piece of paper that he would not commit such conduct again,” the report said. Multiple school system officials knew that the student was the assailant in the May incident, but “not a single person with knowledge of the student’s history or of this current action stepped in to do anything,” the report said.

On Oct. 6, the student pulled a girl into an empty classroom and sexually assaulted her. He’s since been convicted, and ordered to attend a locked residential treatment facility until he turns 18.

‘The culture needs to change’

The school system commissioned an independent review of the situation, and on Jan. 14 of this year announced policy changes, but would not release the review itself.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order on his first day in office in January requesting an investigation of the school system’s conduct in connection with the assaults. The school system sought to quash the investigation, calling it politically motivated. But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled earlier this year it could move forward.

The grand jury offered recommendations, including better communication between the school system and the community about such incidents, as well as changes to the transfer process, especially when law enforcement is involved, and taking complaints from faculty and staff more seriously.

“Although LCPS has taken positive steps forward resulting from the sexual assaults last year,” the report concludes, “… we have learned LCPS as an organization tends to avoid managing difficult situations by not addressing them fully. Whether intended or not, this practice conveys to the public a sense of apathy.”

The report calls for “stronger leadership” and says, “The culture needs to change.”

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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