Defense witnesses testifying in the jury trial of former Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler detailed the circumstances that led to a special-education teacher not having her contract renewed.
Ziegler sat quietly at the defense table, occasionally talking with his attorney Erin Harrigan. He was indicted on two misdemeanor counts related to retaliating against teacher Erin Brooks and unlawfully discharging her from her position at Rosa Lee Carter Elementary School, in Ashburn, in May 2022.
On Tuesday, Brooks had testified for prosecutors with the Office of Attorney General Jason Miyares that she had been repeatedly grabbed by the breasts and genitals by a 10-year-old boy. And when she asked for help, school administrators gave her a piece of cardboard to deflect the boy’s grabbing and links to aprons to buy online.
On Wednesday, jurors heard testimony from Rosa Lee Carter school principal Diane Mackey, who was Brooks’ supervisor during her time at school during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years.
Mackey said she was the person who sent a letter to Ziegler, recommending that Brooks’ contract not be renewed at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. Mackey said Brooks was in the second of three years of probation that all new teachers in Loudoun County Public Schools go through — a period in which no cause is needed in deciding to not renew a contract.
Mackey said she was very familiar with the boy who Brooks accused of sexually assaulting her, since he’d been at the school since kindergarten.
“He was a 10-year old, nonverbal boy with autism,” said Mackey. “He had the cognitive understanding of a toddler.”
Since he didn’t speak, “he had a hard time expressing his needs and wants — he would tend to reach out and grab a collar, or a lanyard,” of a teacher.
“His grabbing was not to harm, but to get attention,” Mackey said.
Before Brooks became the boy’s teacher, Mackey and previous teachers had provided him with an iPad which, when certain images were pressed, would verbalize what he wanted. This, along with another incentive — a token board to reward the boy when he behaved appropriately — were part of his written Behavior Intervention Plan, or BIP.
However, Mackey and other witnesses said Brooks didn’t “implement the BIP with fidelity.”
During a cross-examination, prosecutor Brandon Wrobleski had Mackey stand and hold the record album-sized piece of cardboard with images suggesting “don’t touch” that Brooks had been given to ward off the student. He chided the aprons that Mackey had recommended that Brooks and her teaching assistant, Laurie Vandermeulen, get to prevent the student’s unwanted touches.
Mackey said the cardboard and aprons were only temporary measures, until new strategies were devised to alter the boy’s behavior, and that Brooks was unwilling to accept any of the support measures that she and other administrators had offered.
“As a special-ed teacher, you don’t get to choose your students,” Mackey said, criticizing Brooks’ lack of flexibility while a more permanent solution was being developed.
Earlier, on Tuesday, the final witness for the prosecution was school board member Denise Corbo.
During direct examination, when asked why she decided to run for school board after 25 years as a teacher in the county’s school system, Corbo said she had become frustrated by a lack of responsiveness from administrators when she had pointed out problems with technology that was affecting teachers.
“No one seemed to care,” she said.
When asked to describe the culture of LCPS among teachers, she said, “Fear of retaliation — they’re afraid to speak up.”
However, during cross examination, Harrigan elicited from Brooks that Ziegler wasn’t the superintendent in the period of time she was a teacher.
Corbo discussed a closed-door encounter with Ziegler, which she said took place on the evening that the school board voted to not renew Brooks’ contract.
Corbo told Ziegler she didn’t feel comfortable going along with the suggestion to not renew the contract as part of a consent agenda, without the chance to learn more about why a person was being fired.
Corbo testified that she said to Ziegler, “Did we just fire someone?”
She told jurors, “Scott Ziegler looked at me and the camera and said, ‘You did tonight.'” It’s not clear what camera Corbo was referring to in a closed session.
When Corbo said she didn’t realize what was happening, she said Ziegler snapped back, “It’s your job to read the consent agenda.”
The defense told Circuit Court Judge Douglas Fleming, Jr. it had approximately three more witnesses to present on Thursday.