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Judge declines to dismiss charges against former Loudoun schools chief

A Loudoun Circuit Court judge declined to dismiss charges against former Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Scott Ziegler during a court hearing on Thursday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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A judge on Thursday declined to throw out misdemeanor charges against a former Loudoun County, Va., schools superintendent in a politically fraught prosecution involving the school system’s mishandling of two on-campus sexual assaults by a teenage student.

Scott Ziegler, who was fired by the Loudoun school board amid widespread community anger over the 2021 assaults, was indicted last year on three misdemeanor charges by a special grand jury empaneled by Virginia’s attorney general at the direction of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). Ziegler is awaiting a trial in Loudoun Circuit Court, as is schools spokesman Wayde Byard, who faces a felony charge of lying to the grand jury.

In court on Thursday, Ziegler’s lawyer, Erin Harrigan, argued that under Virginia law, the office of Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) lacks the prosecutorial authority to mount a case against her client, given the particulars of his alleged offenses. She asked Judge James Fisher to dismiss the indictment against Ziegler or at least disqualify Miyares’s office from handling the case.

But Fisher rejected Harrigan’s contention that state law allows only the locally elected commonwealth’s attorney for Loudoun County to prosecute the case. Agreeing with lawyer Theo Stamos, a special counsel to Miyares, Fisher said the attorney general has “a broad swath of authority” at the direction of the governor to pursue criminal cases such as the one involving Ziegler.

“I disagree with your conclusions,” he told Harrigan.

If Ziegler had gained a favorable ruling from the judge, it is unclear whether it also would have applied to Byard, who is on administrative leave from the school system. Byard sat in the front row of the courtroom gallery on Thursday with his attorney, listening to the legal arguments. Both defendants, who have denied wrongdoing, left the courthouse without commenting.

At the root of the case are two sexual assaults committed by a male student who was later convicted of the offenses. In the first incident, a female student was assaulted in May 2021 in a bathroom at Stone Bridge High School. The male student was then transferred to Broad Run High School, where he sexually assaulted a female student in October 2021 in an empty classroom.

During the ensuing community outrage, some blamed the assaults on the school district’s policy of allowing students to use bathrooms for the gender they identify with. The male student was clad in a skirt during the first assault, which occurred in a girl’s bathroom, but no evidence has publicly emerged that he is transgender.

Youngkin, campaigning for governor in 2021, continually assailed Loudoun school officials over the assaults and how the incidents were handled. After he and Miyares were elected, the attorney general empaneled a special grand jury to investigate the school system’s handling of the matter.

In a 91-page report released last month, the grand jury said it found no evidence of a “coordinated coverup” of the assaults by school officials but said administrators had shown incompetence and a lack of interest in responding to the cases.

The report said Ziegler had lied to the school board in June 2021 when, in response to a board member’s question, he said he was unaware of the first assault, which had occurred a month earlier at Stone Bridge. Ziegler has said he answered inaccurately because he misunderstood the question.

The misdemeanor charges against him involve making false public statements in the investigation of the sexual assaults and, in unrelated incidents, using his position as superintendent to retaliate against a teacher and firing that teacher under false pretenses. Byard is accused of perjury for making “multiple false statements” to the grand jury, prosecutor Stamos told Fisher.

Indictments were issued secretly in June and September last year and unsealed last month.

Outside the courthouse Thursday, the father of the girl who was assaulted at Stone Bridge said he was “relieved” by the judge’s ruling.

“It’s going to go on,” he said of the prosecution. “We’re going to get to the bottom of all this in the end.”