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A recent sexual assault has uncovered an under-the-surface issue between Fairfax County Public Schools and some residents of a Fairfax neighborhood.

Fairfax County police are investigating a report of a 16-year-old girl who was attacked around 4 p.m. March 19 in Fairfax. The girl had just entered an unpaved path that runs between two non-contiguous ends of Pickett Road behind W.T. Woodson High School, near Frost Elementary School, they said.

According to police, a man approached the girl from behind, grabbed her neck, and assaulted her under cover of the dense foliage that surrounds the path.

Police said the teen struggled and was knocked to the ground. After a brief altercation, she screamed and ran to a nearby home for help. Police said they arrived within minutes but the man already had fled the scene and remains at large.

“That little girl did everything right,” said Capt. Joe Hill, the West Springfield District Station commander, at a community meeting addressing the assault Monday evening at Robinson Secondary School.

It is not the girl’s actions or the assault itself that has members of the community arguing with each other and with Fairfax County school officials; it is the path itself.

Long known by residents and Neighborhood Watch captains in the area, the winding, 100-yard path twists through a thickly wooded area, hiding any activities taking place there.

“Kids go back there to drink, smoke, have sex or all three at once,” said Rick Huska of the Kings Park West Neighborhood Watch. “It’s been that way since the 1970s.”

Its after-hours reputation aside, the path does serve one utilitarian purpose: a quick cut-through for Frost Middle and Woodson High School students trying to make it to class before 7:20 a.m.

But that use of the path is not appreciated by homeowners in the Chestnut Hills neighborhood who live at the start of the path — on a private pipestem off the Pickett Road cul-de-sac where some parents drop off their kids in the early morning to avoid heavy school traffic along Little River Turnpike.

“That path goes across private property and is not a sanctioned path, it is just something the kids use,” said Doug O’Neill, coordinator for Safety and Environmental Health for the school system at Monday’s meeting.

In an email obtained by the Times that was sent to Braddock District Supervisor John C. Cook three days after the March 19 assault, O’Neill proposed building a “six-foot chain link fence” along the path’s border between school property and the Chestnut Hills pipestem.

“Because FCPS is limited to only installing fences on its property, the FCPS property fence section may not give FCPS the desired result of discouraging pedestrian traffic through the Chestnut Hills [West Neighborhood] Association’s property and encouraging pedestrian traffic on Nutwood Way,” the email reads. “The distance to the path in question to the FCPS property line is approximately 90 feet. This distance could allow students to circumvent the fence and continue to utilize the path.”

After being contacted by Cook’s chief of staff, Susan Gragg, president of the homeowner’s association, sent out her own email, which was also obtained by the Times.

“We have concerns that this will create more problems than it will solve,” she wrote. “The kids will just divert into Starlight Ponds and up the pipeline right of way, and... the woods would become more of a hang out and problem area.”

Glen Ackerman, who has a son who attends Woodson, agreed.

“By fencing off this area you will create an alcove for kids to do illegal drugs and who knows what else,” he said Monday. “It is the openness and pedestrian traffic that keeps that path from being even worse than it already is. Without it, you will achieve the exact opposite effect of what you are trying to do.”

Ackerman proposed putting up security cameras, making it safer for kids to cut through the area. Others in the audience suggested clearing the woods along the path, straightening and widening it, making it open and enabling students to cut through more safely.

“Hold on just one minute,” interrupted Margaret Buckley, who lives in one of the six private homes along the pipestem traversed by students currently utilizing the path. “This is private property they are cutting across. My property. I for one am not in favor of making it easier for anyone to cut across my property.”

Cook, who was in attendance, made his own comments concerning the suggested ideas.

“We are all here because we are concerned about our children. I am a parent as well as a supervisor,” he said. “But apparently there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this. Whatever is going to happen, I want you all to know that this idea for a fence is not coming from the county. It is coming from Fairfax County Public Schools, which is a separate entity. In addition, I can not, and I will not, send a county vehicle onto someone’s private land to widen a path. That would be illegal.”

As Monday’s meeting started into its third hour, O’Neill concluded by saying he and the school system still are in favor of erecting the controversial fence, but that he welcomed input from all those concerned.

“This fence is a knee-jerk reaction,” said Lynn Mulvey-McFerron. “I’m sure families in the five affected neighborhoods would be happy to provide labor to the county to make the Pickett path a more hospitable environment for our students and neighbors who utilize the path.

“Pulling together the various homeowner groups — as well as the multitude County departments that perform this kind of service — would make quick work of correcting the narrow, winding Pickett Road pedestrian path.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com