Earlier this month, a Loudoun County Circuit Court judge ordered the unsealing of a special grand jury investigation report on Loudoun County Public Schools, opening a Pandora’s box revealing high-level school officials’, including disgraced former superintendent Scott Ziegler, misconduct related to the covering up of sexual abuse of girls in school. The special grand jury reported both a lack of transparency and accountability by Loudoun County Public Schools.

For me, as a mother, child advocate, and former teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), reading this special grand jury report was a painful deja vu. FCPS also has a disturbing pattern of abuse of power, secrecy, and alleged corruption when it comes to issues of sexual abuse, including sex trafficking in the schools, which FCPS has admitted is a widespread problem. 

Two lawsuits filed in federal court relating to FCPS’ mishandling of sexual abuse allegations reveal the same issues of dodging transparency and accountability. In one lawsuit, a former student at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon said she was sexually abused and repeatedly gang-raped for months by multiple older students who may have been gang members, starting in 2011 when she was 12 years old. 

The pending lawsuit describes how school officials ignored her pleas for help and she eventually left the school system. As a result, the lawsuit claims, she suffered lifelong injuries. The matter resulted in a sweeping settlement between FCPS and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2014, which, at least on paper, forced FCPS to revamp its response to allegations of sexual misconduct, change how they train their staff regarding sexual harassment and assault incidents and investigations, and create a system of tracking complaints. Although they deny the claims, a school district like Fairfax County doesn’t enter into an 18-page settlement with the federal authorities for nothing. 

A disturbing fact is that Robert Falconi, the Loudoun County School District’s general counsel who was accused of witness tampering by the special grand jury last week, was in charge of FCPS OCR investigations for many years, including at the time of the 2014 resolution.

FCPS also argued the court should toss the lawsuit because the young girl filed as “Jane Doe” instead of using her real name in court. This sent the case on an unnecessary appeal which FCPS lost. Unfortunately, the district judge allowed FCPS teachers and administrators who are credibly accused of covering up sexual abuse to use their initials in court filings. This is a grave miscarriage of justice that allows school bureaucrats to avoid accountability for their actions. 

The second lawsuit, brought by a former student at Oakton High School, alleges administrators ignored her allegations of sexual assault on a school trip. A federal judge recommended sanctions against Fairfax County Public Schools after they destroyed or failed to preserve documents as required in the 2014 resolution. Some documents that were uncovered revealed FCPS district administrators joking about the child’s sexual assault in text messages.

All of this legal subterfuge hit home for me last year. As an advocate for special education students, I filed a public records request asking for Fairfax County Public Schools’ legal invoices. Other parent advocates and I wanted to see why FCPS was paying millions of dollars to law firms like Hunton Andrews Kurth LLC, whose history includes fighting in favor of segregation during Virginia’s “massive resistance” to integration in the late 1950s, and Blankingship and Keith P.C., who specialize in litigation against special education children and their families.

After paying for and receiving the invoices I requested, the Fairfax County School Board hired Hunton Andrews Kurth, the same law firm representing the school system in the above sexual abuse cases, to sue me and another mom for exercising our freedom of speech regarding these documents. For me, I believe this lawsuit was simply retaliation for the hours I devoted to advocating for children and their special education needs. After the Goldwater Institute, a public policy research and litigation organization dedicated to advancing the principles of individual liberty, agreed to represent us pro-bono, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, accusing Fairfax County Public Schools of trying to infringe on our right to free speech and making almost “frivolous” arguments.

These invoices showed Fairfax County Public Schools was paying these law firms millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to fight against basic civil rights for children, including trying to bury the sexual assault cases above, as well as other shocking lawsuits including the illegal handcuffing of disabled students, and the discrimination of Asian American students in admissions to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Given their knee-jerk reactions to cover-up, is it any shock that the school district employees looked the other way for two years while Fairfax County Public Schools employed convicted sex offender Darren Thornton as a guidance counselor at Glascow Middle School?

This behavior must stop immediately. Fairfax County Public Schools must foster a culture of transparency and accountability. Only then will our children be safe and their civil rights be protected. It’s time for school district officials to protect the kids and not the system. It’s time to stop throwing our children under the bus.

Debra Tisler is a mom, a former special education teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools, and a child advocate fighting for children with special needs in Virginia.

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