Photos of Loudoun County father Scott Smith being led away bloodied and in handcuffs made national news when the June 22 School Board meeting erupted into chaos amid the culture war protests of parents battling then-proposed transgender protections and fears about Critical Race Theory. The boardroom was cleared after Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) determined the crowd was too rowdy to continue with public comment.
But, Smith said, amid the high-profile battle between conservative and progressive parents playing out in the boardroom, his altercation and ultimate arrest had little to do with the School Board’s agenda for the meeting.
Smith, a Leesburg-based plumber, was attending his first School Board meeting with his wife, Jess. Less than a month prior, on May 28, the Smiths say their daughter was sexually assaulted in her Stone Bridge High School bathroom by a fellow student.
“I went at the spur of the moment after I finished up a work job down the street, to go see the circus I’ve been seeing on the news. We weren’t going to protest or anything,” Smith said.
Smith said the student who assaulted his daughter is male and identifies as gender-fluid. And he said he was provoked during a meeting by a woman he knew personally, who made comments about his daughter, discounting the alleged assault. Deputies attempted to restrain Smith, and he was dragged to the floor.
Smith was later charged with two misdemeanors and convicted by Judge Thomas J. Kelley. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, all suspended, contingent on a year of good behavior. His attorney, Elizabeth Lancaster, argued for a moderate fine and no jail time, pointing to Smith’s largely clean record, his long residency as a small business owner in Leesburg, and his anger about the assault of his daughter. Smith is appealing the verdict to the Circuit Court, where a jury trial is scheduled for March 12, 2022.
After another sexual assault was reported last week, this time at Broad Run High School, Smith decided to speak out.According to the report on the incident, on the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 6, the 15-year-old suspect forced the victim into an empty classroom where he held a student against her will and inappropriately touched her. The victim immediately reported the incident to a School Resource Officer. The suspect was charged with sexual battery and abduction.
During the public comment session of Tuesday’s School Board meeting, dozens of parents alleged that the assailant from the Broad Run report was the same as from the Stone Bridge incident. Parents charged that administrators allowed the student to transfer within the district after the incident, putting students at a new school at risk.
“What are you doing to protect my daughters and every LCPS student from being sexually assaulted at school?” one mother said. “You allowed a student who is currently charged with sexually assaulting a girl to be quietly transferred to another school. The same high school my twin daughters attend…Why did you put my daughters in every 14- to 18-year-old girl at Broad Run at risk of being sexually assaulted?”
“Your moral compasses are busted. You Dr. Ziegler and our School Board, everyone of you, are complicit in these crimes against our children,” Carrie Michon said.
District spokesman Wayde Byard said neither he nor School Board members could comment on the alleged assaults. Although doing so would not risk revealing any students’ identities, Byard also said the district could neither confirm nor deny that the assailant was the same student in both incidents.
The Sheriff’s Office did not release any information about the cases, citing Virginia code the seals cases involving minors.
After the second alleged assault, Smith said he decided to speak out about the process he said he and his wife have endured since the incident with their daughter. Smith said the school called him in after their daughter reported the assualt, giving little information about what had transpired.
“The day of the incident, the [School Resource Officer] and the principal made it very clear that they had to do their investigation and that we weren’t to talk about anything. … The school counselor was in the room with my wife and daughter and told my daughter and my wife they’re not supposed to talk about anything,” Smith said.
The principal continued to ask Smith questions, he said.
“I just kept saying ‘no, this is not acceptable, where’s the police? Where’s the ambulance?’” Smith said.
He said grew frustrated that the school resource officer, a deputy assigned to the school, was not providing the answers Smith was looking for. Still, to this day, the Smiths say that they don’t have clarity on the investigation.
“The school said it was handed off to the Sheriff’s Office, and they don’t know what is going on. My wife has done so much. … She’s tried to get paperwork and restraining orders. It’s a mess,” Smith said.
The school district said much of the LCPS response protocol is dictated by law enforcement agencies, and the administrators must not intervene in such investigations. The school district did not comment on the specific incident.
The Sheriff’s Office confirmed that a two-month investigation was conducted of the alleged assault and a case remains pending in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, although no details were shared.
Concerns about the school division’s handling of assaults also is a concern of a group of Woodgrove High School alumni who say they experienced sexual assault, harassment, or violence during their years at the school. They are working to change the culture at their alma mater to protect current and future students with their organization, Be Better Woodgrove.
Four young professionals dispersed throughout the country found themselves once again back in their hometown of Purcellville during the pandemic. During that time, anonymized accusations of sexual assault began to surface on popular twitter accounts, and the group of friends was struck to see a pattern of Woodgrove alumni sited as assailants on the pages. Seeing those accusations, they said, was a time warp to their own traumatic experiences, which, they realized, were emblematic of larger problem not just at their high school, but perhaps at schools everywhere.
One of the organizers said she was sexually assaulted by student off campus when she was a freshman. When rumors of the incident reached administrators, the victim was questioned in what she described as an interrogatory way. As a 15-year-old, she said, she didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate to the administrators that she had been assaulted. The incident was never followed up on after the initial investigation.
“If you don’t tell me anything, I can’t help you,” she remembers the school counselor telling her before dismissing her.
She said she wishes to empower and inform youth to know when they’ve been assaulted or harassed, and what kind of reconciliation they’re entitled to.
“Reliving those experiences just felt really lonely,” one of the group’s organizers said. “We knew we had to do something.”
The women crafted and shared a survey for current Woodgrove students and alumni across social media, asking about adverse experiences, harassment, and sexual assault.
“We released it without any real intention,” one of the organizers said.
Within 10 days, they’d received over 300 responses. The results, they said, were startling: 82.5% of the respondents felt that not enough is done to prevent sexual harassment and assault at the school. Of the respondents who went to the administration for help, nearly 90% felt that not enough action was taken in response to their experiences.
School districts are required to provide Virginia Department of Education statistics on incidents that are reported in schools. The VDOE reporting database only goes back to incidents that occurred during the 2016-2017 school year. There were fewer than 10 sexual assault and harassment incidents reported in Loudoun schools during both the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years. There are no reported incidents from the other years.
The women launched the website for Be Better Woodgrove and sought guidance from groups including Know Your IX, which empowers students to stop sexual violence and educates on rights under Title IX, the Loudoun Abused Women Shelter (LAWS), and the Virginia Action Alliance.
While groups such as LAWS provide informational programing in schools to teach about consent and healthy relationships, Executive Director Judy Hanley and the Be Better Woodgrove team agree that such resources aren’t abundantly available.
“It’s not as coordinated as we would probably like. Our community is growing so quickly that it is often difficult to keep up with all of the schools,” Hanley said.
The group created a list of demands for Woodgrove, ranging from implementing sexual education measures for students, to doing away with coerced mediated conversations between victims and assailants.
The group engaged in a series of meetings with school administrators, and met with School Board member Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge). While the group members felt supported by Serotkin, the meetings with administrators, they said, were not productive for Be Better Woodgrove. The organizers said administrators spent most of the meetings discussing current sexual assault response protocols, without giving sufficient consideration to the group’s experiences and demands.
“Those meetings were about 80% listening to the administrators,” a Be Better Woodgrove member said.
The school district said that the group worked to inform the revisions of Policy 8270, the student dress code, and Policy 8035, dealing with sexual discrimination and assault. Be Better Woodgrove, though, said that the group wasn’t asked to assist in writing policies.
Serotkin, who is on the School Board’s Discipline Committee, said that Be Better Woodgrove’s cause hits close to home.
“It’s personal for me because Woodgrove is where my kids will go to high school in a couple years. I look out my back window and I see the school every day,” Serotkin said. “The members of the Be Better Woodgrove community, some of them are neighbors, and friends, so it is personal for me. So, I really take it seriously and have done my best to take their input on informing our policies.”
The group remains frustrated on the districtwide front. Wayde Byard, the district’s spokesperson, said that LCPS has already met most of the group’s list of demands. The group demands an apology “reflecting on past errors in addressing sexual assault and harassment and holding themselves accountable for change,” according to their website.
“Be Better Woodgrove has never revealed the specifics of the supposed errors by staff, which makes the need for such an apology unclear,” Byard said.
In their meetings with administrators, the group kept most accounts of harassment and assault anonymized to protect their survey respondents, many of whom are current Woodgrove students. The apology, the organizers would say, would represent an acknowledgement of the culture at the school and a commitment to changing it.
“If you make students feel more comfortable, you’re going to make it a healthier environment overall,” one of the women said.
Be Better Woodgrove also is pressing the school division to make students more aware of their Title IX rights and how to report violations, including adding that information to the student handbook; and to develop a survivor-centered response protocol to prevent subjecting students to uncomfortable interrogative conversations with authority figures after an incident.
Be Better Woodgrove launched an Instagram account to inform current students about their rights, sexual assault awareness, and the LCPS reporting process. The group also recommends that students and parents familiarize themselves with the Loudoun County Abused Women’s Shelter.
Hanley said students need to be informed about issues such as sexual assault and consent early.
“In the past, we have waited until high school to teach about these things, but it really needs to start in elementary school,” Hanley said. “I think working with community partners to make sure the prevention information is provided, as well as beefing up their Title IX enforcement will also help by educating people what Title IX is.”