Prince William School Board asks court to halt subpoenas

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The Prince William County School Board is seeking court intervention to stop its former chair from continuing to subpoena members for documents in his defamation lawsuit against the former superintendent.

In two scathing motions, attorneys for the board and former Superintendent Steven Walts asked a judge to stop the latest subpoena issued by former Board Chair Ryan Sawyers’ attorney and to sanction Sawyers and his counsel.

Sawyers, who served as chair from 2016 to 2018, is suing Walts over comments the then-superintendent made in a video posted on Twitter in May 2020. The video in question was posted after the school system received complaints regarding more than 20,000 private Twitter messages between Walts and students.

In the video, Walts said he only used the account for official business, contended complaints against him were a political attack by his critics and said the complainants were bullying and attacking students online.

Sawyers was not explicitly named, but Walts refers to “a former School Board member, who was previously censured by the School Board for his behavior.”

Sawyers has said the comments in the video, which had more than 29,000 views before being taken down, were “false and defamatory” and they “damaged Sawyers’ personal and professional reputation by alleging conduct that is reprehensible to him as a former school board chairman, businessperson, coach and father.”

Sawyers is seeking $2.3 million in damages.

Sawyers seeking numerous records

Sawyers’ attorneys issued a subpoena to current Board Chair Babur Lateef on Aug. 19 seeking a slew of documents the school system has resisted releasing publicly. The subpoena had a deadline of Sept. 12.

Lateef and the school system were also served a subpoena in 2021 seeking documents specifically related to the May 2020 statement. The latest request seeks information stretching back more than five years.

Lateef was ordered to turn over:

  • All communications from Walts since Jan. 1, 2017

  • All communications he or any School Board member had with a firm the board hired to investigate Walts’ Twitter use; a law firm that investigated the account; and anything related to a meeting with any School Board member about the account

  • Any report from the firm that investigated the account and any bills for their work

  • Walts’ complete human resources file and any employment agreement for the superintendent

  • All direct messages sent to the Twitter account or any correspondence containing those messages

  • Any correspondence mentioning any alterations to the direct messages

  • Any documents related to how the Twitter was handled, including an alleged May 2020 meeting with a female student

  • All versions of the school system’s internet use policy

  • Any performance improvement plan created for Walts after Jan. 1, 2020

  • Any correspondence about log-in credentials for the Twitter account

The school system has rejected requests from InsideNoVa and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to release all the messages with students, claiming they are part of the superintendent’s personal papers, an exception allowed under state law. The school system has said it will release messages requested by a parent between Walts and that parent’s student.

A judge sided with the schools in 2020 in keeping the messages private.

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