Superintendent Scott Ziegler, speaking at a press conference Oct. 15 offered an apology for how Loudoun County Public Schools handled a pair of sexual assaults allegedly perpetrated by the same student at two different high schools and pledged to make changes to how the schools division responds to such incidents.
“My heart aches for you and I’m sorry that we failed to provide the safe, welcoming and affirming environment that we aspire to provide.”
“We share in your pain and we will continue to offer support to you,” he continued.
Ziegler addressed the issue of how LCPS reports sexual harassment and assault in schools and said the school division has determined that Title IX laws directing how schools must investigate allegations are insufficient.
“We believe it could be strengthened by some reforms,” Ziegler said.
He recommended the school board place the issue on their legislative agenda, and that the board lobby for changes to allow more protections for victims of sexual harassment and assault.
“This morning, I spoke with Virginia Secretary of Education Qarni to enlist his help in this effort as well as with Chief of Staff for Elementary and Secondary Education Christian Rhoads with U.S. Secretary of Education Cardona’s office to discuss the needed changes,” he said.
However, whether or not the changes occur, he said LCPS is committed to emphasizing the safety and protection of victims.
Ziegler is proposing disciplinary action at the time of the incident rather than suspending the action until the end of the Title IX or criminal investigation, until the end of a Title IX or criminal investigation, he said.
“We will exercise all options available under Title IX to separate alleged offenders from the general student body. To ensure this happens, our administration will recommend to the school board changes to Policy 8030 and 8035 to place greater emphasis on victim rights,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-10) told the Times-Mirror Friday evening that she has opposed changes made to Title IX in 2020 and continues to advocate for rules that protect victims of assault.
“My heart breaks for the young students who were victims of these assaults. It is clear that there were shortcomings which unacceptably put Loudoun students in harm’s way. It’s important for the investigations to continue and swift changes be made to best protect students and ensure an environment where every person can learn and thrive,” Wexton said.
“I opposed changes to Title IX put in place by the previous administration which jeopardized student safety by scaling back victim support measures, and I continue to advocate for the full reimplementation of previous rules that protected victims,” she said.
Virginia Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33rd) did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Ziegler’s call for changes to state law.
In a statement released Oct. 13, a spokesperson for LCPS said “to maintain the integrity of the criminal investigation, law enforcement requested that LCPS not interview students until their investigation is concluded.”
Ziegler said during Friday’s press conference the school division’s processes and procedures were not adequate to respond to events such as the two sexual assaults, especially in light of the pace of growth in Loudoun County, which has 82,000 students.
Ziegler said since he became superintendent, the school administration has taken some steps to correct such shortcomings and has directed the chief of staff to oversee the modification and codification of all of the school system’s practices, citing changes that have been made to the athletic eligibility appeals process and the process for special placement.
He also called for an expansion of the Department of Instruction, adding one position — Executive Director Chief of Schools — and expanding the role of the Executive Principals.
Ziegler stressed the importance of consistency and oversight across all schools in the county, which he said was missing prior to his tenure and contributed to errors in state reporting of disciplinary incidents in schools.
“The division inadvertently omitted some information in the past. That is extremely concerning, and we are taking steps to make sure that process is improved,” he said, adding that there was no intent to hide information from the Virginia Department of Education.
Ken Blackstone, executive director of communications for VDOE said on Friday the department has reviewed the discipline, crime and violence (DCV) data submissions of Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) and is in communication with LCPS regarding the accuracy of their reports and whether the division is in compliance with state reporting requirements.
“DCV data submissions are required annually by state law,” Blackstone said. “They are self-reported and school division superintendents are required to certify their accuracy upon submission. This is a matter that VDOE takes very seriously and is actively investigating discrepancies in the LCPS reports.”
He also addressed the lack of options for alternative placement for students involved in serious disciplinary infractions and is working with the Deputy Superintendent to fast-track a solution, saying correcting that is one of his top priorities.
“In the very near future, we will have alternative placements for students involved in discipline infractions that protect the safety of the student body and the rights of the accused,” he said.
Ziegler said he plans to strengthen the school’s relationship with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and proposed changes to ensure school discipline and criminal investigations can happen simultaneously while following all reporting requirements of the Code of Virginia.
“This includes notification from the Sheriff’s office to the superintendent and principal when students are charged with serious offenses,” he said.
Ziegler also addressed his comments at the June 22 school board meeting, during which he was questioned by Board Member Beth Barts (Leesburg) about whether or not there had been any sexual assaults in school bathrooms, to which he responded “no.”
He said he wrongly interpreted the question as asking about incidents involving transgender and gender fluid students because the discussion and debate at the time involved policy 8040, which addresses transgender issues.
“I regret my comments were misleading and I apologize for the distress that error caused families. I should have asked Board Member Barts clarifying questions to get to the root of her question, rather than assuming what she meant. I will do better in the future,” he said.
Ziegler concluded his statement by saying that it has been a difficult time for the community and he asked for “grace and engagement to grow and create the community we all desire.”
Ian Prior, executive director of the activist group Fight for Schools — who a day earlier publicly called for Ziegler’s resignation — responded to the superintendent’s statement with renewed criticism.
“There’s no bigger tell of lack of accountability than blaming ‘the system,’’ he said. “Systems don’t make decisions to put a student accused of rape back into school — people do. Systems don’t make false statements at school board meetings and then say they misunderstood — people do.
“Scott Ziegler has shown multiple times that he is allergic to the truth. There will be no trust for this school system as long as he is Superintendent,” Prior said.