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Virginia Democrats Voted to Allow Schools to Refrain from Reporting Sexual Battery in 2020

Gov. Ralph Northam (D., Va.) speaks at a news conference in Alexandria, Va., May 28, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly voted for — and Governor Ralph Northam signed — a law allowing schools to refrain from reporting instances of sexual battery, stalking, violation of a protective order, and violent threats occurring on school property in 2020.

§ 22.1-279.3:1 of Virginia code had required that these, among a number of other major crimes, be reported to law enforcement if they occurred on campus. Democrats insisted that misdemeanors be extirpated from reporting requirements in House Bill 257, replacing the word “criminal” with “felony” in the code.

In a stunning exchange between legislators in the House of Delegates last year, Todd Gilbert, the Republican Leader in the body, asked Delegate Mike Mullen “did I hear correctly that you would not have to report sexual battery to law enforcement any longer if we accept these amendments?”

“I would answer the minority leader that he is not hard of hearing, and that he is asking me to repeat this over again even though he heard it the first time,” responded Mullen, the bill’s sponsor.

“Forgive me, Madam Speaker, ladies and gentlemen, for being shocked that the patron, a career prosecutor, would want to accept these amendments, and frankly would want to put you all in the position of voting to accept these amendments,” shot back Gilbert.

“So I apologize for my hard of hearing, but frankly I couldn’t believe my ears,” he added.

The contentious back-and-forth has taken on new relevance a year and a half later, after a bombshell story from the Daily Wire alleged that Loudoun County Public Schools sought to conceal the rape of a 15-year-old female student by a male student wearing a skirt in the girls’ bathroom. The facts of what happened next are disputed somewhat.

While the father of the victim claims that he was told upon his arrival at the school that everything pertaining to the incident would be handled “in house,” Loudoun County Public Schools released a statement that alleges that the “Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office was contacted within minute of receiving the initial report” on the day of the attack. For its part, the Sheriff’s Office says that “an LCSO School Resource Officer was notified by Stone Bridge High School staff of a possible sexual assault.  A thorough investigation and evidentiary analysis was conducted over the course of several weeks by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit.”

Regardless of the facts of the immediate aftermath, though, school officials would have been legally bound to report the incident to law enforcement since it crossed over the line from the misdemeanor of sexual battery and into the felony of sexual assault. Battery involves forcible sexual touching through coercive means. Sexual battery turns into sexual assault legally in Virginia when it involves rape, sodomy, or another form of aggravated sexual battery.

That said, the school’s attempt to push through the scandal without alerting — and in fact while actively misinforming the public — in an effort to change school policy to allow biological males into female restrooms and locker rooms would have been made even easier had the culprit’s behavior not crossed the arbitrary line into sexual assault. At a school board meeting on transgender guidance held less than a month after the attack, Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Scott Ziegler announced that “to my knowledge, we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms.”

Had the crime been able to have been categorized as sexual battery, the school would still have needed to alert the parents of the victim and district administration, but not any outside authorities.

After the bill passed the General Assembly last year, Gilbert urged Governor Ralph Northam to veto it, arguing that “House Democrats today adopted a policy that will make our students, teachers, and school personnel significantly less safe.”

“Administrators should have some leeway over when to involve law enforcement in disciplinary problems — but instances of sexual battery, stalking, and threats and against teachers and staff are not ‘discipline problems.’ They are serious crimes with real problems that need to be investigated and prosecuted,” he asserted.

Jim Livingston, the president of the largest teachers’ union in the state, the Virginia Education Association, supported the legislation, holding that “it’s time we move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to reporting and tap into the experience and expertise of our front-line school principals.”

The bill and scandal both raise larger questions about the merits of parental versus systemic, or expert control of education in Virginia. Education policy has emerged as a major issue in the race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe to become the state’s next governor, with the former arguing for greater parental control of policy and the latter declaring that  he doesn’t “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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