Loudoun Co. schools reviewing how SROs handle sexual assaults

A joint committee made up of Loudoun County School Board members and County Board of Supervisors is offering recommendations for the Virginia school system’s school resource officers on how they handle sexual assault cases.

It comes in the wake of the recent announcement of a federal Title IX investigation of the school system and a December grand jury report that found Loudoun County schools mishandled two highly scrutinized cases that led to the firing of former Superintendent Scott Ziegler.

The committee has recommended that the school board require trauma-informed training for SROs and to review whether or not officers must have parents present or parental consent when officers interview students.

The recommendation came as officials reviewed the current Memorandum of Understanding between Loudoun County schools and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and Leesburg Police Department.

Currently when SROs investigate underage sexual assaults, officers obtain the minimal facts of the allegation to determine if a crime has been committed, leaving out detailed questions. They then immediately refer the case to Special Victim’s detectives.

“We also have detectives in our Special Victims Unit that specialize in child exploitation, human trafficking, Internet Crimes Against Children, and other specialized topics to ensure that we are well prepared to handle all types of sexual abuse and assault cases,” Lt. Colonel Christopher Sawyer told the committee Monday.

“I don’t think that we have a systemic issue with sexual violence (or) sexual assault. There’s 82,000 students and we have had one, two, maybe three highly publicized cases,” said Supervisor Juli Briskman.

But Briskman pushed for the new Memorandum of Understanding to, “require SRO training on trauma informed policing tactics and interview techniques specifically designed to better serve minors potentially involved in sexual assault or domestic assault situations.”

Sawyer responded, “You know, we’re all for training. We train as much as we can. (We are) not opposed to having more training.”

He did request a leeway in the time frame of the training due to changing schedules and positions of officers and the scarcity of available training courses.

The committee deliberated much longer on recommendations on parental consent of student interview.

“I frankly find it terrifying that law enforcement officers might be able to interview students. You just need to watch the movie about the Central Park Five, where parents were trying to get in to talk to their children and they couldn’t get in and they ended up being charged and almost thrown in prison,” Briskman said in the discussion. “That’s the images that I have in my head when I see a blanket statement that law enforcement will be allowed to interview, question, detain, search students without any parameters.”

She did acknowledge extreme cases may call for such interviews but would like those circumstances laid out in the document.

“Although I very much sympathize with Supervisor Briskman’s concerns … there are emergencies that arise. There are students who bring guns to school and start shooting,” countered Supervisor Kristen Umstattd. “I think law enforcement needs the flexibility to deal with situations that are serious and immediate without asking for parents’ permission or administrators’ permission.”

Ultimately, they unanimously passed a motion for the school board to “review the language” surrounding parental consent and presence for student interviews

The Loudoun County’s School Board and sheriff’s office will now review the recommendations.

Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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