- The Washington Times - Friday, October 15, 2021

Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler apologized Friday for failing to provide a “safe” environment for students and a school board member resigned amid uproar over the school board’s response to two alleged sexual assaults at high schools.

Mr. Ziegler explained that despite the schools following protocols and federal law, known as Title IX, for reporting alleged sexual harassment and assault on campuses, he said, the provisions are “insufficient in addressing issues at the K-12 level.”

“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 at a press conference.

Hours later, country school board member Beth Barts of Leesburg, Virginia, tendered her resignation from the board. At the board’s June 22 meeting, Ms. Barts questioned Mr. Ziegler as to whether or not sexual assaults had taken place in Loudoun County Schools.

At the time, the assaults were not widely known and parents of the victims were complaining.

Ms. Barts said her resignation was “not an easy decision, or a decision made in haste.”

“After much thought and careful consideration, it is the right decision for me and my family,” said wrote in a letter to fellow board members and the Loudoun County Public Schools administration.

Mr. Ziegler also said the process to report sexual assault and harassment claims need to be reformed. He said he was recommending the school board place the issue on the agenda for its next meeting.

“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,” he said. “We will exercise all options available under Title IX to separate alleged offenders from the general student body.”

The schools have weathered intense criticism from parents after allegations that a ninth-grade girl was raped on May 28 in the girl’s bathroom at Stone Bridge High School.

The teenage male suspect, who wore a skirt at the time of the alleged incident, was transferred to a nearby school only to be later accused by another female student of sexual assault last week in a classroom.

The father of the first victim, Scott Smith, who became one of the faces of frustrated parents facing down school board members, attempted to get answers from the board on June 22 about his daughter’s case, but a now-famous video shows him dragged out by law enforcement.

Mr. Smith became incensed when he heard Mr. Ziegler, during a discussion over transgender and gender-fluid policy, respond to Ms. Bart’s question about whether any sexual assaults of students in bathrooms had previously occurred in Loudoun County Schools and replied there was no record of such assaults that he was aware of.

His comments drew scrutiny when both sexual assault allegations came to light this week and parents called for his resignation.

“I wrongly interpreted as incidents involving transgender and gender-fluid students,” Mr. Ziegler said, referencing the debate about transgender students and bathroom use. “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.”

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

Meanwhile, Virginia Republicans are highlighting a March 2020 law passed by the state’s Democratic-run General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam that allows school authorities to avoid reporting to police about some crimes on school campuses.

“I think what drew attention to this bill [HB 257] that Democrats passed is that suddenly Democrats decided to substitute their own judgment for that of parents and law enforcement,” Republican Del. Todd Gilbert, the House minority leader, told reporters Friday. “They basically said, you do not have to report certain crimes, including sexual battery committed against a child in a public school. You do not have to report that to law enforcement.”

Mr. Gilbert said that, in the case of the Loudoun County school sexual assault allegations, “We don’t know exactly what happened here. We know it’s serious, but the blurred lines of what is, or isn’t a felony shouldn’t be left at the discretion of a school principal.” He added, “It should be left at the discretion of the police.”

• Kerry Picket can be reached at kpicket@washingtontimes.com.

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