Friday, I watched my beloved legal system fail me. County prosecutors are politicians at their core. They pick and choose what cases to prosecute based on the political winds. For generations, these political decisions have served to disenfranchise many groups. As time goes by, we recognize that this selective picking and choosing of cases based on politics is, at times, discriminatory and, in some cases, racist.
For 9 months, parents have collected nearly 20,000 petition signatures in Fairfax County, Virginia asking a judge and jury to hear a case as to whether the decision by the Fairfax County School Board to keep schools closed last year, particularly for special needs children, amounted to a dereliction of duty. We simply wanted a judge and jury to hear the facts and decide. Sure, the case had hurdles to overcome, but we wanted it to be argued and heard fairly and this is the process in Virginia. To gain standing in court, we needed to get signatures, in person, during a pandemic. This wasn’t easy, but we did it.
The court certified the signatures and petitions as valid and then the case was assigned to the county prosecutor—we as parents who collected the signatures and citizens who signed, like crime victims, have no voice in court. Friday, even after the judge ruled that the grounds for the petition were valid and the matter could proceed to trial, the county prosecutor declined to prosecute the case. This prosecutor was not from Fairfax County. The Commonwealth Attorney for Fairfax County, Steve Descano, had to recuse himself because ironically an effort is underway to remove him from office for failing to prosecute enough cases. Descano recused himself and then asked the court to appoint his friend, James M. Hingeley, from Ablemarle County. The fact that someone who recuses himself because he admittedly cannot be impartial is then allowed to pick his replacement is a travesty, in itself, necessitating reform; but once again the parents, aka victims, did not have a say.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Hingeley met with the parents who collected signatures and assured them that he would fairly prosecute the case. On Friday, he flipped. He gave no warning or reason other than no longer believing that the case had merit. Those who signed the petition and collected the signatures have no procedural way to appeal.
A school board member instantly took to Twitter and mocked us. He called this “Democracy.” I see nothing worth celebrating. I never made this issue political. Others might have, but I didn’t. I believe it was deplorable, unconscionable, and a misuse of the office for the school board to keep special needs kids out of school because they deemed buildings unsafe to house children while Fairfax County received money from a private company to operate childcare centers in the schools during the pandemic. Interestingly, the Federal Government seemingly agrees as they launched an investigation regarding this practice on January 12, 2021. I wanted a jury to hear this story and fairly decide if the school board was incompetent in the performance of their duties. I did not get my day in court. It’s sad.
As I mentioned, there is a recall effort going on for the Fairfax County prosecutor – I’m thinking maybe that’s where I should spend my time next.
Shawnna Yashar, Esq.
Dunn Loring, VA