In the national debate over the direction of K–12 education, the battle lines separating parents and institutions are only hardening.
School boards, accustomed to operating without much democratic input and to winning elections with minuscule turnout, are reacting to the sudden spotlight by covering up the consequences of their decisions and hiding crucial information from parents, even when it concerns their children’s safety. In Loudoun County, Va., the district’s cover-up of a sexual assault in a school bathroom became a national story last year and arguably affected the state’s gubernatorial election. Now, a similar case is coming to light in nearby Alexandria.
We have learned that the Alexandria school district and school board withheld information from parents about a violent sexual assault by multiple people in a city high school, one that sent the victim to the hospital and led to a police investigation. Alexandria police have now directly confirmed to Independent Women’s Forum via email that the police arrested a 14-year-old suspect in early December for “aggravated sexua[l] battery, rape, and forcible sodomy” in connection with the October incident at Minnie Howard campus. The police declined to share additional detail about the incident due to the fact that both the victim and suspect are juveniles. And Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) chief of school and public relations Julia Burgos said that “we are unable to provide information regarding specifics about students.”
A recent Freedom of Information Act request also unearthed a concerning series of emails about the reported sexual assault at Minnie Howard High School last October. Among the recipients and participants in the emails are school-board members, the superintendent, the mayor, and Alexandria police. Parents, however, were largely left in the dark.
“Parents had zero communication regarding this incident. This crime should scare parents. If parents knew what had happened, parents could have necessary talks with their children and pressure the school to increase safety,” Molly Kaiman, an Alexandria City Public Schools parent, said, adding she feels “misled, angry, [and] scared” by the way this information was kept from parents.
The emails were exchanged just days before a joint board-council hearing focused on reinstating school resource officers to the city’s school campuses, after a previous school-board decision removing the police generated controversy.
Around the halfway point in that six-hour-long meeting, in response to a question from a council member who wanted an “overview” of the incidents that had occurred in the schools, several were listed without much detail — including “a potential sexual assault that is being investigated.” This aside amounted to the only public notification of the rape requiring hospitalization to parents, who continued sending their kids to Minnie Howard and other Alexandria schools without critical information about student safety.
The school board, superintendent, and mayor had made the apparent decision to withhold the full scope of the details while families all over the state were swarming contentious school-board meetings on topics ranging from transparency and curriculum to their children’s safety at school.
On October 6, 2021, ACPS superintendent Gregory Hutchings sent an email to the nine-member ACPS school board with the subject “Potential Sexual Assault.” The body of the email contained few details but did say (brackets mine), “FYI there is a potential sexual assault of a student by other students this afternoon at MH [Minnie Howard]. The student has been taken to the hospital and APD [Alexandria Police Department] is working through the investigation. No more details at this time.” In turn, the chairwoman of the school board, Meagan Alderton, notified Mayor Justin Wilson and all city councilors.
An incident of this magnitude generated buzz in unofficial community channels and among students, and, three days later, a concerned parent sent an email to city officials — including Hutchings, then-acting Alexandria City police chief Don Hayes, and the mayor — asking for confirmation of the Minnie Howard sexual assault and several other violent incidents in ACPS.
The parent wrote, “I don’t want to uproot [my daughter] but I’m tired of the violence and so is every parent I know.”
The only response came not from the district or school-board officials but from Police Chief Hayes, who confirmed that a sexual assault at the school was under investigation and assured the parent that he was working with school administrators on the matters outlined. Hayes’s email was compassionate, agreeing with the parent that “the behaviors we are seeing in the public schools are unacceptable.” But no further information was released to parents or the community.
If the police chief was willing to confirm the investigation of a sexual assault, as the department finally did on Friday, it’s hard to understand why the district decided not to notify ACPS parents more formally about the incident, especially when the district had sent out notices about violence on campus in the past, including about more minor incidents.
The behavior of ACPS and the city council goes far beyond the city of Alexandria. The secrecy surrounding serious crimes at Virginia schools risks becoming systematized.
At the state level, Virginia Democrats moved to pass a law last year to prevent serious crimes from being reported if they could be classified as misdemeanors. Sexual battery is a Class 1 Misdemeanor in Virginia and is therefore potentially among those not reportable.
In November 2021, a bill was introduced to reverse the earlier law and to require reporting of serious misdemeanor crimes. Additionally, the new law requires that parents be notified of such crimes in their children’s schools and be informed of their rights to press charges through the justice system. That bill has passed both houses of the Virginia legislature and is awaiting signature from the governor.
Jennifer Rohrbach, another ACPS mother, said she doesn’t know how other schools handle incidents of sexual assault but is angry about the lack of transparency about student safety. “Any sexual assault that occurs on school property should never be considered ‘business as usual’ or it will be viewed as sweeping it under the rug,” she said.
Important questions remain for Alexandria: What disciplinary actions occurred, and where are the students now who are accused of this violent sexual assault? Have there been any more sexual assaults in ACPS schools? What is ACPS’s official protocol in terms of notifying parents of violent incidents at school?
Parents of ACPS deserve answers, but one thing is abundantly clear: Public schools across the U.S. are not working with parents in good faith, as partners to secure the safety of students, just as they’ve been resistant to parent input on curriculum and Covid restrictions.
It will take a sustained hard effort from parents, helped along by elected officials such as Governor Glenn Youngkin and systemic policy solutions such as school choice, to restore parents to their rightful place in the drivers’ seat of their children’s educations.
As for restoring parents’ confidence that public schools are a safe place for kids, considering what has been exposed in Alexandria, that may never happen.