Virginia delegate: Law on notification of school employee arrests may need to be updated

A Fairfax County delegate to the Virginia General Assembly said the law that requires police to report the arrest of public school employees for specific offenses may need to be tweaked.

Del. Vivian Watts, whose district includes part of Fairfax County, spoke with WTOP following the discovery earlier this month that a Fairfax County Public Schools counselor remained employed after he had been convicted of soliciting a minor for prostitution because police attempts to reach the superintendent were sent to faulty email addresses.

Watts said “effective action” is likely during the upcoming assembly session to make an addition to the Virginia code, which currently requires law enforcement agencies who arrest a full-time, part-time, permanent or temporary teacher in a Virginia public school system for a felony or Class 1 misdemeanor to “file a report of such arrest with the division superintendent of the employing division as soon as practicable.”

The law, Watts said, may need to include a requirement that school systems verify they received notification of arrests from law enforcement. That way, she said, “the responsibility is clear on the part of the receiving school system to take action. Because if they haven’t received it, unfortunately, it exists in ether.”

“This was most unfortunate, given the years and years and years of attempting to set up this kind of oversight and prevention,” Watts said. “Prevention of any victimization by sex offenders, because once the victimization occurs, the ramifications to victims, particularly children, is lifetime.”

When asked if Gov. Glenn Youngkin would support a change if it passed the General Assembly, a spokesperson pointed to his previous statement. The governor asked State Superintendent of Schools Jillian Balow to make sure the Virginia Department of Education is reiterating its schools’ hiring policies.

The spokesperson added that Youngkin directed Secretary Bob Mosier to look into the case “and immediately prompted the Department of Corrections to initiate an investigation.”

Watts said she has talked to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay, who, in collaboration with school board Chair Rachna Sizemore Heizer last week, urged the Fairfax County delegation to review the state’s laws overseeing notification of crimes.

The notification process has been thrust into the spotlight after Glasgow Middle School counselor Darren Thornton remained employed despite being arrested in Nov. 2020 on charges of solicitation of a minor in Chesterfield County as part of an online sting operation.

Chesterfield County police attempted to notify former superintendent Scott Brabrand via email the following day, but the department learned last week that its emails were never sent.

Thornton remained a county employee despite being convicted and ordered to register as a sex offender.

Thornton was placed on leave and then fired after a June 9, 2022, arrest following a separate sting operation. He was charged with soliciting a prostitute and “frequenting a bawdy place.”

Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said last week he was surprised to see Thornton still listed on the Fairfax County Public Schools website as a counselor after his first arrest. The next day, Katz said, the Chesterfield County Police Department’s special victims unit supervisor called the school system to report the arrest.

Getting an addition to the existing law passed shouldn’t be a challenge, Watts said, “given that it carries out what is the long-time intent of the law.”

State police

Separately, Watts said budget changes may be necessary to enable the Virginia State Police to more routinely verify accuracy of residential and employment information provided by a convicted sex offender.

Thornton said he was self-employed when he registered, police said; he was arrested Thursday and has been charged with providing false information to the state’s sex offender registry.

The Virginia State Police told WTOP the agency conducts unannounced verification checks.

“Checking every application is not the level at which one would spend the resources,” Watts said. “But given the shortage of manpower in law enforcement, it may well be this is an area where there needs to be more significant prioritization of looking at sex offender information and verifying residence and employment.”

Regarding the verification process, Watts said it’s important to consider “what level of spot check is necessary to protect public safety.”

Fairfax County Superintendent Michelle Reid, who wasn’t the superintendent at the time of either of Thornton’s arrests, said she has launched an independent third-party investigation into the situation. She said she’s expecting a final report in early September.

Reid met with Glasgow families last week and said, “I know we have to rebuild trust, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

WTOP’s Rick Massimo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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