The Tea Party knew that it could develop leverage for their conservative goals by taking over school boards to further its agenda nationally by beginning at the local level. With groups like Fight for Schools, led by Ian Prior, a former senior official in Trump’s Department of Justice, the Loudoun County school board has been under similar attacks gaining national attention for their plight.
This past week saw the resignation of one of the school board members targeted in recall efforts by parents in coordination with these nationally focused groups. It also saw controversy erupt over Policy 8040, the state-mandated policy to protect and provide equity to transgender students in the wake of two student sexual assaults in the county.
This story is personal to me as a resident and parent in this Northern Virginia county. I was at the June school board meeting where the public comments section was prematurely shut down and eventually ruled an unlawful assembly leading to several arrests. Fight for Schools and their members were also present, as was Scott Smith, who was one of the people arrested.
Initially, Fight for Schools members began by pushing their right-wing culture war against critical race theory (CRT) in schools, a conservative invention that is not part of the Loudoun County curriculum. Nevertheless, it provided a purchase point to gin up anger and circulate petitions to remove board members.
Beth Barts, a Leesburg school board member, became a major focus for their recall positions and was weakened by her previous reprimand and censure, and revelations that she was associated with a Facebook group, Parents Against Anti-Racism, accused of attempting to doxx anti-CRT parents. It didn’t matter that these allegations never fully materialized into criminal charges. These pressures, combined with school board death threats among other reasons, led to Barts’ resignation this past weekend.
The Loudoun County Democratic Committee released a statement on the resignation of Barts, writing in part, “Beset by death threats and partisan attacks greater than any public servant can be expected to endure, we wish her and her family peace and thank her for her service to Loudoun County.”
Last week, the right-wing echo chamber via Fox News and the Daily Wire amplified antipathy for the school board when it became public knowledge that Smith, first captured in the viral images as an angry white man losing control at the board meeting, was also a father whose daughter was a victim of sexual assault in Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Virginia, in May 2021. Smith had come to the school that day understandably upset, and later had to be taken away by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. His appearance at the June school board meeting a few weeks later was brought on by a comment made by Loudoun Superintendent Scott Ziegler that there were no incidences of sexual assaults in bathrooms to his knowledge. Ziegler later clarified his statement, indicating his initial claim was focused on attacks by transgender students during a press conference, which was held earlier on the same day Bart resigned.
The alleged culprit is a high school boy, who in unconfirmed reports is said to have gained access to the Stone Bridge girls’ bathroom by wearing a skirt. He was subsequently enrolled at Broad Run High School, also in Loudoun County, for this current school year, where he allegedly groped a girl in a classroom in early October. It was presumably this second assault that prompted Smith and those critical of the school board to speak out this week.
Both these cases involve due process, Title IX issues, and protection for the identity of minors. They have been weaponized by the right-wing as proof that the school board was derelict in its duties to protect school children and was involved in a cover-up and transfer of an alleged criminal from one school to another. Ziegler made clear in his press conference that the school board cooperated and complied with law enforcement and Title IX requirements, but noted more could be done to apply Title IX to K-12 students. (Keep in mind that Title IX protections were recently rendered less effective by Betsy DeVos and the previous administration.)
Additionally, Reddit made claims that Scott Pio, a candidate for state delegate, might have tried to turn Smith’s story into political hay, helping Smith prepare his talking points for his press interviews. In more mainstream news, WTOP offers a better look at how Smith’s case was handled. Law enforcement takes the lead in criminal cases, preventing the public school system from doing any investigatory action of its own until law enforcement’s investigation is complete. A public information officer for Loudoun County Public Schools also told WTOP after reporting such incidents to the school and to the Sheriff’s Office, the school system “does impose interim measures to protect the safety of students involved in the original incident, deter retaliation, and preserve the integrity of the investigation and resolution process.” Commonwealth Attorney Buta Biberaj also mentioned that delays in DNA testing prevented the case from going to a speedy trial, but that the accused was wearing an ankle monitor when the second attack occurred.
There are gaps here, to be sure, between Loudoun’s sheriff, prosecution, and the school administration. Politically charged groups don’t spend much time on that nuance before scoring points by pointing fingers. But for those who care about facts and correct information, I would suggest Loudoun4All, a grassroots group made up of Loudoun residents with an actual stake in the school system as the best place to start, particularly their detailed Google document of facts and their suggestions for needed reform.
Speaking only for myself, I am dismayed by the poisoning of our community by groups that want to unwisely manipulate parental anger in order to dismantle the school board through recalls based on misinformation. The anger and divisiveness have continued at board meetings regardless of whether the issues are legitimate. The threats have also continued, which often gets forgotten as merely political tit-for-tat. But note that only one side is targeting officials in this manner. And if you step off into the Facebook and NextDoor private groups, it gets even more deplorable.
Nick Gothard shares screenshots of a message sent to Ziegler: “If that piece of sh*t Scott Ziegler does not immediately resign, We The People are going to drag him — and every last f*cking one of you pieces of sh*t out into the middle of the street and teach you a f*cking lesson that you will never f*cking forget…” Gothard mentions: “Threats of political violence against Loudoun’s elected officials have been on the rise in 2021. We can thank the Republican Party for normalizing it.”
In contrast, groups like Equality Loudoun and Loudoun4All have emphasized that the true victims here are community members, often students, and often part of the LGBTQ community who are victims of discrimination, bullying, and worse. Those seeking school board recall in outrage overlook these victims and ignore the violent hate speech expressed by their supporters directed not only at these students but at the school board as well.
Pio’s campaign, with its outrageous stance and platform, would be almost humorous if it wasn’t so deadly earnest. He has sought to capitalize on this latest development to attack Democrat David Reid, his incumbent opponent. Pio, who demonstrated his lack of scientific understanding in his approach to climate change, showed similarly willful ignorance by attacking Reid. A text message campaign went out this past weekend with images of Reid and the words, “David Reid voted on Bathroom policies allowing sexual assaults on girls,” alluding to Smith’s daughter and Policy 8040, which Pio and his supporters are against even though the policy was implemented months after the attack on Smith’s daughter. Another text campaign made the demonstrably false statement that “David Reid removed mandatory reporting from schools allowing sexual assaults to go unreported to police.”
It seems more plausible that Pio is more interested in ginning up votes off of anger than taking the issue of sexual assault and its victims, and due process and protection of minors, seriously. Others in another private Loudoun Facebook group have pointed out that Pio’s callous use of other people’s suffering to gaslight the school board and attack Reid reeks of male privilege in rape culture.
This exploitative type of “no holds barred” politicking is abhorrent. I support Loudoun4All (and signed their petition) in its attempts to have Loudoun residents reclaim control of our well-being through the use of elections and not the abuse of recalls. I support Equality Loudoun for also standing up for those who are victims of inequity and victims of abuse and other violence. I do not support those who are orchestrating chaos and twisting facts to create controversy for political ends.
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