RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-New Virginia laws are under scrutiny after two students reported sexual assaults in Loudoun County.
The same teen is accused in both cases, which happened less than five months apart at different high schools, according to the commonwealth’s attorney.
The incidents are putting Loudoun County at the center of yet another political crossfire after months of turmoil over coronavirus restrictions, critical race theory and transgender student policies that have captured national headlines.
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said a bill introduced by Democrats in 2020 is taking on new significance in light of the latest scandal.
The father of one victim has accused school officials of trying to cover up the incident to advance their transgender policy agenda. He claims he was initially told it would be handled in-house, rather than reported to police, which the school has denied.
It comes after the General Assembly passed a bill removing a requirement that principals report certain misdemeanor crimes to law enforcement, including sexual battery.
As the facts of how the school handled the sexual assault allegations are disputed, Gilbert suggested this policy change may have played a role.
“We believe children are less safe if that accountability doesn’t exist, if school officials are left with that discretion that they can abuse or misunderstand,” Gilbert said. “Schools shouldn’t be a bubble for discretion to be exercised about what is and isn’t a crime.”
In a statement, Loudoun County Public Schools said the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office was contacted “within minutes” of receiving the initial report on May 28. The Sheriff’s Office said in its own statement that there has been significant misinformation surrounding the facts of the investigation.
Regardless of the school’s discretion, state law would have still required these cases to be reported to law enforcement because the accused student is facing felony charges.
Gov. Ralph Northam noted that the law was meant to remove reporting requirements for low level offenses that were unnecessarily giving students criminal records and getting them off track.
“Anything that is a serious crime like a felony is going to be reported to the police and, even if it is a minor infraction, the schools still have the flexibility to work with the police,” Northam said.
Virginia House Democratic Caucus Spokesperson Kate Sarna called Gilbert’s claims completely untrue and noted that the bill got bipartisan support in the Senate.
“It is truly disturbing that the House Republicans would use a traumatic attack on a young girl to try to score political points in the final days of an election. Virginia voters deserve better than being lied to,” Sarna said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a new state policy directing localities to adopt minimum standards for the treatment of transgender students has also landed at the center of the Loudoun County controversy.
A civil lawsuit against the school system claims the first assault occurred in a girl’s bathroom by a “gender fluid” student wearing a skirt.
Officials still have not confirmed those details, citing juvenile privacy laws. The Loudoun County School Board also formally adopted policies allowing transgender students to use restrooms matching their gender identity in August 2021, months after the incident allegedly occurred.
Regardless, the accusations are leading some to blame the bathroom policy for the incident and raise concerns that sexual assaults will become more common because of it.
“The sexual assault on our daughter and the subsequent sexual assault by the same individual were both predictable and preventable. Subsequent to the sexual assault on our daughter, Loudoun County Public Schools formalized the policy regarding restroom use that was easily exploitable by a potential sexual assailant. Because of poor planning and misguided policies, Loudoun Schools failed to institute even minimal safeguards to protect students from sexual assaults,” the victim’s parents wrote in a press release.
Asked about this, Northam said the transgender student policies are meant to make all students feel welcome, safe and included, regardless of how they identify.
“I don’t believe the laws contributed to those, no,” Northam said.