The Loudoun County Controversy, And The Limits Of Ignoring Inconvenient Stories

A week ago, The Daily Wire released a blockbuster expose (paywalled, but here is Newsweek’s coverage of the initial story) on a situation taking place in Loudoun County, Virginia. To tell the story we need to go back to June of this year when Scott Smith, the father of a young woman attending Stone Bridge High School, was arrested at a school board meeting addressing a proposed policy on transgender and non-binary students. Specifically, the policy up for debate addressed the use of bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender and non-gender-conforming (TGNC) students, permitting the use of those facilities to correspond with a student’s "consistently asserted gender identity." Smith’s arrest was caught on camera and quickly went viral, and was latched on to as another example of conservative parents acting out at school board meetings in response to issues such as critical race theory and transgender student rights, or as The Daily Wire puts it

“As a result of the viral video showing his arrest, Smith became the poster child for what the National School Boards Association has since suggested could be a form of ‘domestic terrorism’: a white blue-collar male who showed up to harangue obscure public servants on his local school board.”

As it turns out, Smith’s issue with the proposed policy was much more personal — on May 28th, his daughter was allegedly violently sexually assaulted in one of the women’s bathrooms on campus by a student that identified as gender-fluid and was dressed in a skirt. The male student, whose name has not been released, was transferred to another school in the district where he has been accused of assaulting another female student. Smith’s anger at the meeting stemmed from school superintendent Scott Ziegler stating "To my knowledge, we don't have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms”, and another attendee at the meeting accusing his daughter of lying about her assault. 

Worth noting here — the basic facts of this story have been confirmed by subsequent reporting from other news outlets, so I don’t doubt that the story itself is true. A male student was charged with one count of anal sodomy and one count of forcible fellatio related to an incident that took place on May 28th but juvenile records are sealed, so while we don’t have official confirmation we have good circumstantial evidence that the male student has been charged. In addition, the Wire reports that Smith’s daughter was taken to the hospital and a rape kit administered, with the results coming back “favorable for the prosecution.”

There are several layers to unpack in this story — was the Loudoun County school board attempting to cover up a sexual assault committed by a non-gender-conforming student? Did Ziegler lie or was he not informed of the assault? Did the school refuse to call the police, telling Smith instead that it would handle the matter “in house” and instead called the cops on him

The first two questions are in dispute but to the last question, the answer seems to be no. Journalist Jesse Singal obtained the dispatch logs from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office for the incident and they show that the Stone Bridge High School School Resource Officer was indeed notified of the assault and was in the process of investigating when Smith arrived at the school. In Virginia, an SRO is a member of local law enforcement assigned to work in one or more schools, not to mention in their capacity as a school employee SROs are mandated reporters who have to inform the Sheriff’s Office of any allegations of sexual assault. In looking at the time frame of the dispatch logs, it’s clear that the SRO logged the allegation at 1:33 pm, with the requests for a supervisor and an additional unit being placed starting at 2:21 pm in response to Smith becoming agitated. 

I don’t blame Smith at all for the misunderstanding — I imagine any parent, after getting the news that their daughter has been sexually assaulted on campus, isn’t tuning in to the finer points of a conversation. The information that the SRO investigating the incident is a member of law enforcement and had already been in contact with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office or would be soon could have been made clear, but I’m sure the school administrator handling this situation was extremely stressed and so didn’t articulate that information as best as they could. With the additional information, it seems more like a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings than an attempt by the school to not get the police involved, which is how The Daily Wire presented the story. For that the Wire deserves fault — it’s a reporter’s job to find this sort of thing out before publication and for an editor to question if that framing is correct. 

The larger question here is, why was it left to The Daily Wire to cover this part of the story at all? It’s not as if Smith’s concerns were a mystery; in this clip, you can clearly hear a woman assumed to be Smith’s wife state several times that their daughter was sexually assaulted by a student she identifies as transgender (not in the nicest terms) on campus. It would seem that someone should have reached out to Smith or his lawyer to see if there was more to this story than a disgruntled white man mad at CRT and trans kids.

That didn’t happen, and there is a reason why — there is a trend currently in media reporting where reporters and outlets will avoid taking on any story that can be seen as providing ammunition for the “wrong” side. This trend is noticeable across the board but distinctly noticeable whenever the issue of transgender people comes up, especially transgender kids. The idea is, if everyone ignores a certain story or refuses to report on certain facts then those stories and facts can’t be weaponized by bad-faith actors who want to, say, ban transgender students from using the bathrooms that correspond to their stated gender. 

The Loudoun story highlights exactly how that strategy backfires — the lack of reporting from other outlets meant the Wire was free to run with the story, putting an incendiary slant on the events and framing it as an indictment of the idea that transgender and non-conforming kids should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choosing. Despite other outlets’ best efforts to keep the “wrong” side from latching on to a story, it did, specifically because nobody else was covering the story. 

The “we can’t report on certain things because the other side will use those stories against us” is a clever smokescreen for what I think the real issue is, which is that stories like this one are uncomfortable for certain outlets to report on. Reporting on anything that can be perceived as being less than 100% on board with transgender and non-conforming gender rights opens an outlet up for accusations of transphobia and very few publications or media outfits want that kind of heat right now. For them, it is better to let certain stories go than to potentially die on the hill of seeming to be less than perfectly supportive of transgender rights. But stories are stories and facts are facts, ignoring them does not make them magically go away. Instead, it gives bad faith actors an excuse to both cover the stories and also subtly judge outlets who chose to pass on a story.

Also troublesome is Ziegler’s claim that he wasn’t aware of any records showing any instances of any assaults occurring in campus bathrooms. There is debate as to the extent of what Ziegler knew when he said that in the board meeting, although it strains credulity that a superintendent would not have been made aware of a sexual assault taking place on a school campus. If it is proven that he did know about the assault and lied, well, that’s a cut and dried case of trying to cover up an incident that would have been detrimental both to the policy being discussed and the broader conversation surrounding TGNC kids. 

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and say he wasn’t made aware of the assault — his default answer was not “I’m not sure” or “let me check and get back to you” but to flatly state that no assaults have taken place in campus restrooms. That’s extremely telling; he knew the “correct” answer even if he didn’t know the correct answer. Ziegler knew there was only one answer he could give in that situation and he gave it because to have said anything else would have invited a full-scale meltdown from both sides of the debate over TGNC kids. Because of his decision, it gives the appearance of the Loudoun County school board was actively trying to cover up a sexual assault, but to answer in any other way would have created a controversy over the school board not being supportive of TGNC rights. I don’t condone Ziegler’s decision to state an untruth, but I can understand how someone in his position would make that choice in that circumstance. 

This calculus of deciding what to say and do to avoid discussing difficult topics or reporting on stories that can be twisted by bad faith actors can’t continue. For one, it’s ineffective, as this incident proves. More importantly, it shuts down vital discussions that merit attention, to ensure that a full and honest debate on sensitive issues can be had. 

UPDATE 10/21/2021 - New evidence has come out that school superintendent Scott Ziegler was aware that a sexual assault took place in a campus bathroom, according to WTOP News of Virginia. In an email he sent to school board members on May 28th, Ziegler confirms an allegation of sexual assault was made and that LCSO was investigating. His email also references Smith’s reaction and that additional law enforcement units were requested to assist.

Ziegler’s email makes no mention of the male student identifying as TGNC, only that an assault took place and that LCSO was investigating both it and Scott’s behavior. Still, it’s pretty damning evidence that Ziegler lied in the June school board meeting when he stated that no sexual assaults had occurred in campus restrooms.

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