Judge lets grand jury continue investigating sexual assault at Loudoun schools

A Loudoun County judge ruled Monday that a grand jury investigation into Loudoun County public schools’ handling of two sexual assault cases can proceed despite a legal challenge by the county’s school board.

“We have no way of knowing where this will lead,” said Judge Jim Plowman in Loudoun Circuit Court. He concluded that despite the grand jury’s ongoing work, it would be “premature” to say that the school system was damaged: “I don’t think there is any recognizable, irreparable damage here.”

The special grand jury was convened as part of an investigation by Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares into the handling of two sexual assault cases committed last year by the same Loudoun student. The school system was heavily criticized for transferring the student to another campus after his first sexual assault, where he committed a second.

The teenager, who was 14 when he committed the first attack, was found guilty of both counts and sentenced to live in an inpatient treatment facility until he was 18. Loudoun school officials apologized for their handling of the incidents and promised significant changes in disciplinary procedures.

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The judgment can be appealed to a higher court. Lawyers for the school board declined to comment; Assistant Attorney General Steven Popps said his office was “very pleased with the outcome.” In a statement, a spokesman said Monday that the school system did not agree with all of Plowman’s rulings but “appreciated the court’s consideration” in handling the issues. The system is examining all available legal options, but has not yet made any final decisions.

During his campaign last year, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin made the incidents part of his criticism of school policies. On his first day in office in January, he issued an executive order authorizing Miyares to “conduct a comprehensive survey of Loudoun County public schools.” According to court records, a special grand jury has since subpoenaed the superintendent and individual members of the school board. Youngkin tried unsuccessfully this spring to force all nine members of the school board to stand for election that year.

The school board sued in May to stop the grand jury’s work, saying both Youngkin and Miyares had exceeded their authority and were involved in a “fishing expedition” rather than a legitimate criminal investigation.

The attorney general’s office “does not investigate criminal activity, which they are clearly not allowed to do,” attorney Steven Webster, representing the school board, said in court.

Grand jury investigations are generally conducted in secret. But Webster told the court that the subpoenas issued included requests for “every Facebook post” made by some school employees about the “Title IX Policy,” which prohibits gender discrimination. and “the transgender student policy”. He said the grand jury is also pursuing information from closed school board meetings. “It’s going to keep board members from doing things and saying things,” he said.

The first victim’s parents said the accused youth was “gender biased,” prompting renewed attacks on a policy in Loudoun County schools that allows transgender students to use bathrooms that conform to their gender identity. This policy was introduced after the May attack; the perpetrator was described before the criminal court as male.

Webster said that since the entire school board itself was not subpoenaed, a civil suit is the only way to challenge the scope of the investigation.

Webster also accused the attorney general’s office of interfering with the attorney-client relationship, including by contacting witnesses to gain access to privileged material. Webster alleged that special counsel Theo Stamos told two school board members to “get your own lawyers” because “the school board doesn’t look after their best interests.”

Popps called these allegations “absolutely false” and “untrue.” More broadly, he said, “The school board doesn’t know what the special grand jury is doing; very few people know.” It was “totally inappropriate” for the school board to argue “that somehow they can guess the probe’s intent.” from some subpoenas and witness interviews.

Plowman agreed, saying, “It is impossible to say whether an investigation will be conducted that relates solely to civil or political matters,” as opposed to criminal misconduct. If there are criminal charges, he said, they can be fought through this process. And if the grand jury instead produces a report that includes policy recommendations, he said, it would not be “binding” on Loudoun. “It doesn’t affect the school,” he said. “They can turn their noses up at that.”

In a court filing last week, Assistant Attorney General Thomas J. Sanford called for Monday’s hearing to be closed because “public access … would play a negative role.” Privacy, he wrote, would “protect the proper functioning and privacy of the special grand jury.” The school board denied the request, calling it a “violation of the constitutional rights of the press and public.”

Plowman kept the hearing open, saying, “It’s not a grand jury trial.”

The mother of the first victim said after the court hearing that she was glad the investigation was progressing. The Washington Post generally does not identify sexual assault victims and does not name the parents to avoid indirectly identifying their daughter.

“We heal through it,” she said. “I want everyone, every person who failed to protect the victim to be held accountable.”

The courthouse was ringed with signs from Kate Smith, a retired architect, who described Loudoun as a diverse and welcoming community, as she had at previous hearings.

“We have a lot of people shouting a lot of negative messages,” said Smith, 65. “I hope the system protects everyone involved and doesn’t make a silly presentation out of it. We’ve seen enough of that.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/07/11/loudoun-county-schools-sexual-assaults/ Judge lets grand jury continue investigating sexual assault at Loudoun schools

Dustin Huang

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