The trial of the longtime Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman, who was indicted on felony perjury charges, got underway Tuesday, nearly two years after school administrators’ handling of two sexual assaults by the same student thrust the Virginia school system into the national spotlight.
Wayde Byard was indicted late last year by a special grand jury convened to examine the school system’s handling of the two sexual assaults. Byard is accused of lying under oath when he testified before the panel on Aug. 2, 2022.
Former school system Superintendent Scott Ziegler was indicted by the same grand jury on three misdemeanor counts. Ziegler is set to go on trial later this year.
The charge against Byard relates to testimony he gave to the special grand jury about when he learned about the first allegation of assault, which took place in a high school bathroom at Stone Bridge High School in May 2021. According to a transcript of his testimony before the panel, Byard told members of the grand jury he was unaware of that first sexual assault until a second assault was committed by the same student in October 2021, this time at Broad Run High School.
Prosecutor’s evidence: ‘Wayde, this is bad’
In her opening statement in Loudoun County Circuit Court on Tuesday, special prosecutor Theo Stamos told jurors Byard lied to the special grand jury about the first incident.
She said Byard talked with Tim Flynn, the principal of Stone Bridge High School directly after the May 2021 incident. That same day, the victim’s angry father came to the high school and caused what school officials later characterized as a disturbance.
The principal told him, “Wayde, this is bad,” and specifically used the term “rape,” Stamos told jurors.
Later that afternoon, the principal emailed the school community about the incident — an email Byard helped craft — referencing the disturbance by the parent but not the sexual assault, she said.
Stamos said Flynn also later wrote an email to his higher-ups detailing what allegedly happened in the bathroom in graphic terms.
Defense: ‘Case of common sense’
In her opening statement, Byard’s defense attorney Jennifer Leffler told jurors, “This is a case of common sense.” She said Byard never tried to cover up information about an assault; he was simply out of the loop.
The defense attorney told jurors that Byard believed — based on his conversations with the principal — that the incident in the bathroom at Stone Bridge was a “boyfriend-girlfriend situation” that had “gone sideways” and that the two students had had sex in the bathroom before.
She also said other school officials would testify that Byard followed proper procedure in not describing the sexual assault in the initial email to the school community because the reported assault had not been investigated at that point.
She said while the principal did later send follow-up emails to school administrators and other higher-ups referencing a “rape” and other graphic details, Byard was not copied on any of them.
“Why are we here? He’s the face of LCPS,” Leffler said of Byard, referring to the intense controversy surrounding the school system’s handling of the assaults. “He’s the fall guy.”
Byard, who has pleaded not guilty, has been on leave since December, when the indictment was unsealed.
Scathing grand jury report
The special grand jury was convened in spring 2022 by Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, under an executive order from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Both officials had criticized the school system during their successful campaigns for office in fall 2021.
The assaults became a major issue in that year’s gubernatorial election in part because the student who committed the assaults was allowed to transfer to another school after the first attack, and in part because the boy was wearing a skirt when he committed the first attack in a school bathroom, The Associated Press reported. At the time, Loudoun County was considering a policy change to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice.
The scathing grand jury report criticized a “stunning lack of openness” in how the school system handled the assaults and said administrators “failed at every juncture” to prevent them from happening.
The strongest criticism in the report was reserved for Ziegler, the former superintendent, who was accused of making a false statement to the media about sexual assaults at a June 2021 school board meeting and also signing off on the email to the Stone Bridge High School community that didn’t mention the incident.
Ziegler was later indicted on three misdemeanor counts, including one count of false publication, apparently relating to statements he made at the June 2021 school board meeting. The other two misdemeanor counts do not relate to the sexual assaults, but to an allegation that he penalized an employee who testified before the grand jury.
He was fired by the school board in December.
Shortly before Byard’s trial got underway Tuesday, in response to questions from Loudoun County Circuit Judge Douglas Fleming, Byard revealed he had been offered a plea deal by the Office of the Attorney General ahead of the trial that he rejected.
Sources told WTOP the deal offered to Byard called for him to plead guilty to the felony perjury charges in exchange for having his sentence deferred for two years. If he didn’t reoffend in that time period, his conviction would have been reduced to misdemeanor obstruction of justice with a fine of $100.
WTOP’s Neal Augenstein contributed to this report from Loudoun County Circuit Court. In addition, WTOP staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.