Loudoun County sexual assault case dominates final days of Virginia governor's race

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A sexual assault case involving high school students in northern Virginia has become a major talking point for the Republican Party in the Virginia governor's race, adding another hot-button issue to an already volatile political environment. The hard-fought gubernatorial election in a Democratic-leaning state is widely seen as a test case for how Republicans could try to win elections in other states next year.

Republican politicians and right-wing media have used the story of a sexual assault in a school bathroom to claim that public schools are run by ideologues imposing liberal dogma on children, that the assault was the result of misguided policies to accommodate transgender students, and that the school system and the mainstream media hide information from parents and the public if it is politically inconvenient.

A close look at facts that have emerged shows a far more complicated picture. Some of the most inflammatory claims are false. Media figures and politicians rushed to judgment and made the story about a transgender male preying on a young girl, when in fact the first of two assaults took place in the context of a previously consensual sexual relationship between two teens. And while there are legitimate questions about the local school board’s handling of the issue, the truth appears to be more complex than how it has been portrayed in right-wing media. The county sheriff’s office and school board are now openly feuding over their shared response.

Protesters in a parking lot hold signs reading: Women and girls are not shields for male violence. And: This democrat supports female-only spaces.
Protesters outside a Loudoun County school board meeting in Ashburn, Va., on Monday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

A week ago, Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin dedicated an entire speech to the sexual assault story and accused the Loudoun County school board of covering up a May 28 incident in which a female student was sexually assaulted in a bathroom.

“A young girl was assaulted in her school, and the administrators — those who are entrusted with not only her education but her safety — tried to cover it up,” Youngkin told a crowd of supporters. He said that if he is governor, he will direct an investigation of the school board.

Regardless of the complex set of facts, Youngkin has said one thing is clear: It’s helping him politically. The Republican said on Fox News Tuesday evening that the outrage sparked by the incident was providing his campaign with a significant boost ahead of the Nov. 2 election against Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

“They’re not standing up for children’s safety,” Youngkin said. “And this is actually turning Loudoun County our direction, but not just Loudoun County: all of northern Virginia. You watch: We’re going to do better in northern Virginia than any Republican’s done in a long time, and we might just win Loudoun County.”

That would be a dramatic reversal in the area’s political trends. Loudoun County is a crucial part of the state for Republicans to win back, after losing ground there over the last decade. It is a fast-growing collection of exurbs about 30 miles west of Washington, D.C., that has traditionally been more Republican-leaning than other northern Virginia suburbs, but the GOP lost ground there under former President Donald Trump. Loudoun County residents — suburban, college-educated and upper-income — are the prototypical voters the GOP needs to win back across the country after Trump.

Glenn Youngkin stands holding a microphone in an outdoor setting.
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at a campaign event in Roanoke, Va., on Wednesday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The basic facts of the high school incident are this: On May 28, a ninth-grade girl was sexually assaulted in a girls' bathroom at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn by another student, a 14-year-old male.

The school administration at Stone Bridge High School notified the Loudoun County sheriff’s department immediately after the reported assault. The county school board was notified as well. On May 28, Superintendent Scott Ziegler sent an email to the board noting that “this afternoon a female student alleged that a male student sexually assaulted her in the restroom.”

On June 22, the victim’s father, Scott Smith, went to a Loudoun County school board meeting, which attracted controversy because the county was planning to implement a policy allowing students to use bathrooms based on their gender identity and was going to require teachers and staff to use gender pronouns requested by students, and vice versa. One teacher had already been suspended for speaking out against the policy and then reinstated in his job by a judge.

During that meeting — which became so chaotic that the board ended it early amid shouting and parents chanting, “Shame on you” — Ziegler was asked by a board member, “Do we have assaults in our bathrooms or locker rooms regularly?”

Ziegler replied, “To my knowledge, we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms.”

Heather Fruzzetti speaks into a microphone at a podium holding a printed piece of paper.
Heather Fruzzetti making a statement during a Loudoun County school board meeting on Tuesday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Smith — the victim’s father — did not speak at the meeting. But after it ended, he was arrested when sheriff’s deputies tried to break up an argument between him and another parent and he pulled away from the officers and became aggressive. He was found guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

On July 8, the boy suspected of the assault was arrested and charged with two counts of forcible sodomy. He was held in juvenile detention and released after three weeks, with electronic monitoring, according to WTOP.

The issue did not come up again until mid-October, when Smith appeared on Fox News claiming that the same boy who assaulted his daughter had been arrested for another sexual assault at a second high school where he had been transferred: Broad Run High School. Smith also said the boy who assaulted his daughter had been wearing a skirt on the day of the first attack.

The sheriff’s department confirmed that it was the same boy, but put out an Oct. 13 statement condemning “misinformation” about the May 28 assault. Community members had begun to ask why the boy had not been immediately arrested after the first incident, why he had been transferred to a different school and why the sheriff’s office had not put out a public notice of the first assault, as it did after the second.

The sheriff’s statement said that as the department looked into the May 28 incident, it did not notify the public because “the suspect and victim were familiar with each other, the investigation was complex, and a public announcement had the potential to identify a juvenile victim.”

People stand in a school holding signs aloft that read: Just say no. And: Masks harm kids! And: I will not be forced to comply to tyranny.
Protesters at a meeting of the Brevard County, Fla., school board to discuss whether face masks in local schools should be mandatory. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Ziegler also came under fire, both for having transferred the boy to another school where he then allegedly assaulted a second student, and for his comments at the June 22 meeting. He apologized and said the incident had revealed “shortcomings in alternative placement options for students involved in serious discipline infractions” but also said federal law did not allow the school to discipline a student if law enforcement was involved, until police had concluded their investigation.

There are now questions, as a result of information made public this week, about whether the sheriff’s office ever informed the school that it had charged and arrested the boy in July. Both Ziegler and a school board member have indicated they were not told of the arrest. Sheriff Mike Chapman has disputed this and said notice was provided “to a school official.”

Ziegler’s explanation of his June 22 comment about no “record of assaults” may have been legalistically true at the time but still has not satisfied many parents. He also said a board member “asked a question about discipline incidents in the bathrooms that I wrongly interpreted as incidents involving transgender and gender-fluid students.” He admitted his answer was “misleading” and pledged to “do better.”

By this time, the conservative media was off and running with the story. When Smith, the father, appeared on Laura Ingraham’s primetime Fox News program on Oct. 13, Ingraham said it was an example of “the rights of transgender students being put over the rights of regular folks.”

People wearing rainbow-printed face masks hold signs reading: Equality Loudoun, trans rights are human rights.
Supporters of transgender protection measures during a Loudoun County school board meeting in August. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Ingraham told Smith that “they’re making you out to be a domestic terrorist at the Department of Justice.”

This was a mischaracterization of a letter that was written by the National School Boards Association to the DOJ on Sept. 29, asking it to investigate threats of violence against teachers and school administrators that were escalating in May and June as parents protested at school board meetings over mask mandates and how schools teach about race. The five-page letter offered numerous examples of intimidating mob behavior and threats of violence in over a dozen states, and mentioned that “in Virginia, an individual was arrested,” with a link to a story that mentioned Smith’s arrest.

In Loudoun County as well, school board members have been targeted by hate mail. One piece read, “All you f***ers should be taken out and hung by the neck until dead. I’d be happy to supply the rope. With a little luck, your daughters will be rapped [sic].” Other emails and social media comments sent to various school board members have threatened lynching and other forms of violence.

The NSBA letter asked the Justice Department for a laundry list of several potential law enforcement remedies and responses, including under “the PATRIOT Act in regards to domestic terrorism.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland responded with a memo on Oct. 4 directing the FBI and U.S. attorney’s offices to meet with federal and local law enforcement “to discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend” and to come up with a plan “to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel.”

Merrick Garland, seated, gestures with his hand while speaking into a microphone.
Attorney General Merrick Garland testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday about oversight of the Justice Department. (Tasos Katopodis-Pool/Getty Images)

Garland’s memo did not use the term “domestic terrorists” or mention the Patriot Act. It specifically said that parents had every right to protest, complain and criticize school boards and said it was concerned only with “threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.”

But conservative media outlets and Republican politicians have taken to claiming that the government has labeled the father of the May 28 assault victim a “domestic terrorist.” WJLA, a TV station in the D.C. area that is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, published an interview with Smith with the headline “Loudoun County assault victim’s dad wants apology for being called ‘domestic terrorist.’”

“When parents complain, it’s domestic terrorism,” Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said on Oct. 6. “Nothing like this has ever happened in this country. ... When powerless suburban parents resist having nihilistic ruling-class ideologies imposed by force on their children, our media seem to believe it is perfectly fine to designate them terrorists and threaten them with firearms.”

The NSBA soon issued an apology for the reference to “domestic terrorism” in its letter. “There was no justification for some of the language included in the letter,” the group’s board of directors wrote.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Oct. 20 discussed the incident on his podcast with his co-host, conservative author Michael Knowles, who said, “What we are told by the ruling class is that men going into the girls' room never poses any threat whatsoever, and reality just happens to contradict that.”

Cruz enthusiastically agreed and then veered off into another set of false statements.

“Joe Biden’s attorney general calls that dad and other parents who are pissed off, calls them domestic terrorists. So you get the government going after parents trying to protect their kids, and you get the media obscuring it all in blackness,” Cruz said.

Tucker Carlson sits in a chair onstage and points to his head.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit in 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In testimony to Congress over the last two weeks, Garland has repudiated any such rhetoric. “I want to be clear that the Justice Department supports and defends the First Amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish about the education of their children, about the curriculum taught in their schools,” he told the House Judiciary Committee last week.

“The only thing the Justice Department is concerned about is violence and threats of violence,” Garland said to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “That’s all it’s about.”

As the uproar continued to grow, an important piece of context emerged this past Monday, in a court hearing where the boy, now 15, was judged guilty by a juvenile court judge.

The victim in the May 28 assault testified that she and the boy had engaged in consensual sexual encounters in the girls' bathroom twice before in the weeks leading up to the assault, and that they agreed to meet there again on May 28. The victim testified that she had not discussed engaging in sexual activity ahead of time on May 28, and that the sex was nonconsensual.

This may be why the sheriff’s department said it had not notified the public immediately after the incident, because “the suspect and victim were familiar with each other” and “the investigation was complex.”

It’s not clear that the boy is transgender or gender-fluid, though he did testify in court on Monday that he was wearing “a knee-length skirt” on May 28.

A group of parents in Loudoun County has started a website to correct some of the false information being spread about what has happened. The group, Loudoun4All, claims that “political operatives are using far-right extremist campaigns in an effort to create hysteria to support state and national elections.”

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stands at a podium in front of a campaign sign.
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at a campaign event in Virginia Beach, Va.. on Monday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

But even after the story became clearer, conservative media figures continued to spread an inaccurate version.

“It had to be covered up for the sake of an election, or because of some sympathy toward the suspect and some antipathy toward the victim. That’s a possibility,” Fox News host Greg Gutfeld said Tuesday evening. “But if you vote for Terry McAuliffe, you are voting for the same corrupt system that condoned a rape because the suspect may have worn a skirt. Who knows?”

Gutfeld concluded: “If you vote for Terry McAuliffe, you’re voting for rape.”

Youngkin has wrapped the Loudoun County assault into an array of issues — including mask mandates, school closings during COVID-19 and “critical race theory” — that he says demonstrate that schools don’t care about parents. He has echoed the inaccurate statements about the government targeting parents, releasing an ad falsely claiming that “the FBI is trying to silence parents.”

But McAuliffe has contributed his own verbal miscue to this mix. The former Virginia governor said he vetoed a bill during his first term in office that would have given parents the ability to “veto books” in their children’s schools. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools, and actually take books out, and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said.

“I stopped the bill,” he said. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

McAuliffe later released a TV ad saying Youngkin was taking this comment out of context.

People sit in chairs at a Loudoun County school board meeting, including a woman who holds aloft a sign that reads: Creating racial tension.
Opponents of critical race theory at a Loudoun County school board meeting on June 22. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)


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