Wed, 06 Dec 2023

LEESBURG, Va. (CN) - It's up to the jury now to decide if former Louden County Public Schools superintendent Scott Ziegler is responsible for the firing of teacher after she reported being assaulted by a student.

Ziegler faces charges of prohibited conduct and retaliating against an employee in connection with the firing of Erin Brooks, a teacher who said that she was fired by the school system after testifying about the administrators' unresponsiveness to allegations that she'd been repeatedly groped by a 10-year-old autistic student. Her story became a key piece of a larger investigation into sexual assaults in Loudoun County schools.

Ziegler is accused of being behind the decision to not renew Brooks' employment contract in June 2022. His legal team, led by Erin Harrigan of Gentry Locke, pushed back against this charge during a trial that began Monday and was scheduled to run for two days. But the complexity of the public integrity law has drawn out the proceedings.

The defense claimed that Brooks' - who had recently been given a teacher-of-the-year designation - performance at Rosa Lee Carter Elementary school was below expectations. Diane Mackey, school principal, testified that that she was the one who recommended that Brooks' contract not be renewed. And in a withering evaluation, she said Brooks lacked flexibility, did not appropriately plan or collaborate.

Mackey said she had attempted to help Brooks deal with the 10-year-old non-verbal autistic student, who began presenting more and more problems the 2021-22 school year progressed. The teachers said he acted out to get attention, first by pulling hair or grabbing a shirt, but later, by attempting to touch his teachers' private parts.

Brooks reported that the student had touched her vagina during a meeting, after which Mackey decided the child needed to be moved to another classroom. The student has made attempts to touch others, but Mackey described the boy as settled in the class. He has motor function issues, she explained.

"He's slow moving," she said. "You can anticipate what he's going to do."

Brooks, testifying twice during the trial, said to a jury panel of seven women and two men, "I did everything in my ability to continue to have a safe classroom environment." She said she asked her supervisors for help and they gave her a piece of cardboard to use as a mini-shield to redirect the boy's touches. One administrator suggested she wear an apron to slow the penetration.

She began to suspect that the boy was a victim and wanted to protect him, she said. She sent emails to a colleague documenting events. The colleague contacted Ian Prior, a conservative activist and co-founder of the group Fight for Schools. Prior demanded the school board take action. Later, Brooks sent a him message that this was the first time she felt heard.

The defense argued that Ziegler then had cause to fire Brooks, saying she shared information about the troubled student using outside email to Prior. Theo Stamos, leading the prosecution as special counsel to Virginia attorney general Jason Miyares, said this was untrue.

Her story was publicized and Brooks testified before the grand jury assembled by the Attorney General's Office.

In court, Stamos observed that under the white-hot light of unwanted national attention, "it was yet another assault."

Along with the criminal case, Brooks filed civil suit earlier this year against Ziegler contending that administrators failed to protect her and retaliated against her for speaking out. She's asking for $1 million in damages.

Ziegler first came under fire two years ago after stories surfaced that a student was moved from one high school, where he had been accused of rape, to another school, where he raped a second girl. Virginia's newly elected governor, Glenn Youngkin, called for a grand jury investigation and said, "Loudoun County School Board and school administrators withheld key details and knowingly lied to parents about the sexual assaults."  

Youngkin charged Miyares with overseeing the probe.

The grand jury handed down three misdemeanor charges against Ziegler. One of those charges is related to the initial scandal involving the two rapes. The two other charges are linked to charges made by Brooks.

Earlier this year, another school administrator, Wayde Byard, was acquitted on a perjury charged in connection with the probe.

Source: Courthouse News Service

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