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Loudoun fires superintendent after grand jury blasts schools’ handling of sex assaults

Jury report found that Superintendent Scott Ziegler lied about his knowledge of first assault in May 2021. An interim superintendent will be appointed Thursday.

Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler, seen at an August 2021 school board meeting, was fired this week. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Loudoun County Public Schools board fired Superintendent Scott Ziegler shortly after the release of a state grand jury report that blasted school leaders for their handling of two sexual assaults by the same student last year — and that called Ziegler a liar.

The board fired Ziegler via unanimous vote shortly after a 2½-hour closed-session meeting Tuesday night, according to school video posted online. Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard confirmed the firing in an interview Wednesday morning but declined to characterize the board’s rationale, including whether the termination was a direct response to the grand jury report.

News of Ziegler’s firing was first reported by ABC7 News. The former superintendent could not be reached for comment Wednesday; his Loudoun email addresses are defunct, and messages and a phone call to a business listed in his name went unreturned. Late Wednesday, school officials announced that they plan to appoint Daniel Smith, the current chief of staff, as interim superintendent at an emergency meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Ziegler and school officials have faced intense criticism from parents for their response to the sexual assaults, which took place in May and October of 2021. In particular, officials have been maligned for their decision to transfer the student assailant from one high school, where he assaulted a student in a girls’ bathroom, to another high school, where he assaulted another student in a classroom.

The controversy in Loudoun erupted onto the national scene in the fall of 2021 after Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) repeatedly condemned the school district in his gubernatorial campaign. The assaults also became entangled in a broader, highly contentious debate over the rights of transgender students at school.

The student assailant was wearing women’s clothing during the first assault, which initially began as a consensual encounter in a bathroom. That May assault came a few months before the Loudoun system adopted a policy allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identities. The policy was not in effect at the time of the assault, and there is no evidence to suggest the male student is transgender. Nonetheless, some — especially conservative activists, parents and politicians — have pointed to the Loudoun assaults as an argument against letting transgender students use bathrooms that match their gender identities, a contention that has drawn rebukes from LGBTQ rights advocates.

Byard said he did not know whether the Loudoun board intended to fire any other staffers. He said he also did not know what steps the board would take to respond to the grand jury report. The report is slated for discussion at the board’s next public meeting, scheduled for Tuesday.

“Right now, the only concrete action I know the board has taken is to terminate the superintendent’s contract,” Byard said. Asked about the superintendent’s payout, he said, “I have not seen the package yet.”

As superintendent, Ziegler earned $325,000 a year following a $30,000 raise in June. For suffering “termination without cause,” Ziegler should receive a severance package totaling 12 months’ salary, paid out in monthly installments, according to a copy of his employment contract obtained by The Washington Post. Byard confirmed Wednesday that Ziegler was terminated without cause but declined to confirm details of the former superintendent’s severance package, noting that the school system has not yet released that information.

Grand jury report condemns Loudoun schools’ handling of sex assaults

The grand jury report had concluded that Ziegler was informed about the May assault on the day it happened but that he later lied about his knowledge of the event during a board meeting the following month. When asked by a board member whether Loudoun had records of “assaults in our bathrooms or in our locker rooms regularly,” Ziegler replied with a falsehood, the report states.

Ziegler said, “To my knowledge we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms.” A witness told the grand jury that this statement was a “baldfaced lie.”

Ziegler has said he misunderstood the question at the meeting. He said he believed the board member was asking whether the school had records of sexual assaults committed in bathrooms by transgender or gender-fluid students.

The grand jury concluded in its 91-page report that Loudoun administrators badly mismanaged the sexual assaults due to their incompetence and general “lack of interest” in the events. But the grand jury also found that there had been no “coordinated coverup” of the assaults between Loudoun school officials and the school board, as some, including Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, had alleged. Rather, the school board had been mostly kept in the dark about the assaults, the grand jury found. The jury report also laid blame at the feet of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, saying officials there failed to communicate well with the school district.

The sheriff’s office put out a statement late Wednesday responding to Ziegler’s firing in which officials defended law enforcement’s handling of the two sexual assaults.

The sheriff’s office “immediately and thoroughly investigated the sexual assaults,” spokeswoman Michele Bowman wrote in the statement. “Detectives promptly conducted interviews and filed search warrants [and] maintained the confidentiality required for juvenile investigations, while properly communicating with” the school system and other county officials, she added.

Ziegler had served as Loudoun’s interim superintendent for roughly six months before being named to the permanent position in June 2021. A former special-education and social studies teacher, he began working for the Loudoun school system in 2019 as an assistant superintendent for human resources and talent development. He oversaw the district’s transition from online-only learning during the pandemic to four days a week of in-person instruction for about 40 percent of its 80,000 students, garnering praise for his leadership from Board Chair Brenda Sheridan (Sterling).

But not long into Ziegler’s tenure, he was facing unfavorable attention from Youngkin, who regularly points to Loudoun as an example of a school district where officials are refusing to listen to parents to promote a liberal agenda. One of Youngkin’s first actions in office was ordering the grand jury investigation into the district. And this spring, Youngkin unsuccessfully attempted to force all nine members of the school board to seek reelection in November — a measure that would have shortened the terms of service for most of them.

Youngkin posted a tweet Wednesday linking to a news story of Ziegler’s firing. A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment beyond the tweet.

“The special grand jury’s report on the horrific sexual assaults in Loudoun has exposed wrongdoing, prompted disciplinary actions, & provided families with the truth,” Youngkin wrote. “I will continue to empower parents & push for accountability on behalf of our students.”

Loudoun parents and elected officials across the political spectrum also shared support for Ziegler’s firing Tuesday and Wednesday. Many had previously called for his removal, along with that of other school leaders.

“I fully support the School Board’s decision to fire the Superintendent in light of the recent grand jury report. I hope this is the first in efforts across agencies to review and revise policies, including cross-agency communication,” Loudoun County Supervisor Juli Briskman tweeted Tuesday night.

Ian Prior, a Loudoun parent, former Trump administration official and founder of the conservative parents’ rights group Fight for Schools, wrote in a text Wednesday that he is feeling “pleased.”

“Superintendent Ziegler will no longer be in the position to put children at risk due to his utterly reckless conduct,” Prior wrote. “However, he was not the only bad actor identified in the special grand jury report and we will continue to demand the full leadership and culture changes that the special grand jury recommended.”

Loudoun4All, a left-leaning parent group that advocates for social justice and racial equity in the school system, released a statement praising Ziegler’s firing and calling for the resignation of Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman, whom the grand jury criticized in their report for not communicating well with the school system about the assaults.

“Loudoun4All believes that while the School Board firing Dr. Ziegler was an important step toward accountability for the failures revealed in the Grand Jury report, it cannot be the only step,” the parent group wrote in its statement. “For his failure to take the initial charges of assault until he was forced to by the public outcry, for his failure to cooperate with LCPS, and for his refusal to provide the charges to LCPS, Loudoun4All feels that Sheriff Chapman also needs to resign.”

Chapman did not directly respond to calls for his termination. Instead, he defended his office in a statement late Wednesday.

“From the outset, LCSO gave this investigation our highest priority,” Chapman said in the statement.

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