Loudoun schools superintendent: we ‘failed’ to provide safe environment after assaults

Channel 7 WJLA News:

Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Scott Ziegler responded Friday after parents were outraged with how the schools handled reports of two sexual assaults inside schools. In a statement, Ziegler said although the schools complied with obligations under Title IX about how schools must investigate allegations of sexual harassment and assault in schools so it equally protects both victims and alleged perpetrators, it wasn’t enough.

“First, let me say to the families and students involved — my heart aches for you and I am sorry that we failed to provide the safe, welcoming, and affirming environment that we aspire to provide,” he said during a press conference. “We acknowledge and share in your pain and we will continue to offer support to help you and your families through this trauma. For all of our students, our school-based Unified Mental Health Teams are available to anyone who needs care.”

RELATED | ‘You guys failed’: Talks of multiple sexual assaults dominate Loudoun school board meeting

“We acknowledge and share in your pain and we will continue to offer support to help you and your families through this trauma. For all of our students, our school-based Unified Mental Health Teams are available to anyone who needs care,” she added. “It is important to know that Title IX directs how schools must investigate allegations of sexual harassment/assault and provides equal protection for both victims and the alleged perpetrators.”

He said the process could be strengthened and he is recommending the school board place the issue on the agenda to lobby for changes that will allow for more protection of victims. 

This comes hours after the father of a Loudoun County Public School student said his family is preparing to sue to school after his daughter was sexually assaulted inside a bathroom.

SEE ALSO: Sexual assault victim’s family to pursue lawsuit against Loudoun County Schools

In an exclusive interview with the 7News i-team, Scott Smith said, “My family has been unfortunately pulled into this nightmare.”

 Emotions were running high during a June 2021 meeting of the Loudoun County School Board. During that meeting schools were also discussing Critical Race Theory (CRT) and a policy about which bathrooms transgender and gender-fluid students should use. Dr. Ziegler said he was focused on that discussion when he was asked about discipline incidents in the bathrooms.

 During a heated exchange,  Smith, a 48-year-old parent from Leesburg, was arrested for obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct. Smith said he attended the board meeting looking for answers after a male student wearing a skirt was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting his daughter in a bathroom at the Stone Bridge High School back in May.Caption: {p}Leesburg parent Scott Smith wants answers after two alleged sexual assaults at Loudoun County schools. (7News){br}{/p}

” I wrongly interpreted as incidents involving transgender and gender-fluid students. I did this because I was viewing the question in light of the general questions and debate around policy 8040 that was occurring at the time,” Ziegler said in a statement. “I did this because I was viewing the question in light of the general questions and debate around policy 8040 that was occurring at the time.”


Ziegler is LYING. Watch the video, listen to the question and then watch Asia Jones signal to Ziegler


He regrets that his comments were ” misleading” and ” I apologize for the distress that error caused families. I should have asked Board Member Barts clarifying questions to get to the root of her question, rather than assuming what she meant. I will do better in the future.”

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that a sexual assault did happen in a bathroom at Stone Bridge High School on May 28. They said in a statement Wednesday that they arrested a 14-year-old boy in the case. It took place approximately one month before Smith’s arrest at the school board meeting.

And the problems on school property are not limited to Stone Bridge. On October 6th, a Sheriff’s Department tweet detailed another alleged assault by the same student at Broad Run High School.

“How could you allow this alleged sexual predator to return to a Loudoun County public school before the court was wrapped up with our court situation,” said Smith.

7News went looking for answers earlier this week from the superintendent, but were denied an interview.

And Smith isn’t the only parent upset about how the schools are handling sex assaults. Parents spoke out about the issue at a school board meeting Tuesday. 

MORE | ‘Handled poorly’: Sex assault victim’s father demands investigation of Loudoun schoolsCaption: Dr. Scott Ziegler, Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent, issues a statement on how schools responded to reported sex assaults. 

READ THE FULL STATEMENT FROM DR. ZIEGLER BELOW:

“Good afternoon. 

Thank you for coming. I’d like to take a few minutes to address recent events in the Loudoun County Public Schools and our plans to reduce the likelihood that they will happen again. 

First, let me say to the families and students involved — my heart aches for you and I am sorry that we failed to provide the safe, welcoming, and affirming environment that we aspire to provide. 

We acknowledge and share in your pain and we will continue to offer support to help you and your families through this trauma. For all of our students, our school-based Unified Mental Health Teams are available to anyone who needs care. 

It is important to know that Title IX directs how schools must investigate allegations of sexual harassment/assault and provides equal protection for both victims and the alleged perpetrators. 

Throughout these recent events, the Loudoun County Public Schools complied with our obligations under Title IX. However, we have found the process outlined under Title IX by the U.S. Department of Education to be insufficient in addressing issues at the K-12 level. 

We believe the process could be strengthened with some reforms. I am recommending to the Loudoun County School Board that this issue is placed on our legislative agenda, and that the board and its allied groups actively lobby for changes to allow more protections to victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

This morning, I spoke with Virginia Secretary of Education Qarni to enlist his help in this effort, as well as with Chief of Staff for Elementary and Secondary Education Christian Rhoades with U.S. Secretary of Education Cardona’s office, to discuss the needed changes. Whether or not changes occur, in the future, our division’s procedure will emphasize the safety and protection of victims. To the extent we are legally permitted to do so, we will begin disciplinary action at the time of the incident, rather than suspending that action until the end of the Title IX or criminal investigation. 

We will exercise all options available under Title IX to separate alleged offenders from the general student body. To ensure this happens, our administration will recommend to the school board changes to Policy 8030 and 8035 to place greater emphasis on victim rights. With that, I want to acknowledge that our processes and procedures were not adequate to respond to these recent events. It has become clear that our administrative procedures have not kept pace with the growth we have seen in our county. 

While informal protocols and school-based autonomy may work in small and medium-sized school divisions, they are simply not sufficient in a county with 82,000 students. In the three months since my appointment, we have taken steps to correct this shortcoming. 

I have directed our chief of staff to oversee the modification and codification of all of our practices. We have already made changes to the athletic eligibility appeals process and have tweaked the process for special placement. To ensure adequate supervision and consistency across the school division, we have reorganized and expanded the Department of Instruction. 

An Executive Director Chief of Schools and an expansion of the role of Executive Principals were put in place to provide greater supervision and oversight of schools and principals. Moving forward, it is essential that we are consistent in our practices across the county. We are taking positive steps in that direction. This lack of oversight that existed prior to my tenure also contributed to errors in our state reporting regarding disciplinary incidents in schools. The division inadvertently omitted some information in the past. That is extremely concerning, and we are taking steps to make sure that process is improved.

 I will say that I have no reason to believe at this time that any missing reports were due to an intent to hide any information from the Virginia Department of Education. In the future, we will report events in real-time in our system and make corrections, if needed, following due process procedures. This will help ensure more accuracy in our Department of Education reports. Recent events have also revealed that we have shortcomings in alternative placement options for students involved in serious discipline infractions. A correction to this issue is one of my top priorities. 

This week, I directed the Deputy Superintendent to fast-track these changes. In the very near future, we will have alternative placements for students involved in discipline infractions that protect the safety of the student body and the rights of the accused. As a division, we value our relationship with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department and the way in which the nationally recognized School Resource Officer program enhances safety and relationships between young people and law enforcement at the school level. We also recognize that we need to continue to build on this relationship. 

To that end, we plan to propose changes to the Memorandum of Understanding between the division and the Sheriff’s office to ensure school discipline and criminal investigations can happen simultaneously and that both organizations follow all reporting requirements of the Code of Virginia. This includes notification from the Sheriff’s office to the superintendent and principal when students are charged with serious offenses. 

Lastly, I want to speak to my comments at the June 22nd board meeting related to bathrooms. Board Member Barts asked a question about discipline incidents in the bathrooms that I wrongly interpreted as incidents involving transgender and gender-fluid students. I did this because I was viewing the question in light of the general questions and debate around policy 8040 that was occurring at the time. 

Multiple board members asked questions about the process, the experiences of students, and plans for transgender students and bathroom use during that discussion. My mindset was in line with that subject. At another point in that conversation, Chair Sheridan asked a question specifically about incidents involving transgender students, and I responded in the same manner. I regret that my comments were misleading and I apologize for the distress that error caused families. I should have asked Board Member Barts clarifying questions to get to the root of her question, rather than assuming what she meant. I will do better in the future. 

The Loudoun County Public Schools will move forward as a learning community that emphasizes safety and affirmation in an academically rigorous environment. We will offer transparency where we are able, but also ask the community to appreciate that we must maintain student confidentiality. Because of this, there will be questions that we simply cannot answer at this time. Again, student confidentiality is a principle and legal obligation to which we must adhere. This has been a very difficult time for our community. We are committed to finding ways to improve our processes to ensure that Loudoun County schools are safe for all of our students. We seek your grace and engagement to grow our schools and create the community we all desire.”