Bus incident investigation draws criticism

Area residents – many wearing purple, Strasburg's school color – showed up at Thursday's Shenandoah County School Board meeting to offer opinions on the boys' basketball program and the alleged assault on a team bus. Kaley Toy/Daily

Editor’s note: Listen to audio from the public comments portion of Thursday’s Shenandoah County School Board meeting:

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County School Board members and schools Superintendent Jeremy Raley were lambasted Thursday night by area residents and an attorney representing one of six students charged with assault or battery by mob in an alleged assault on a school bus carrying the Strasburg High School junior varsity and varsity basketball teams in December.

Residents attended Thursday’s School Board meeting to support the school’s sports program and coaches, and some criticized the handling of the investigation into the mid December incident that was first reported by police as a sexual assault. The six Strasburg High School students, three 16 year olds and three 17 year olds, appeared before a judge in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Woodstock on Thursday. The outcome of their cases is not known since most hearings in that court as well as juvenile records are closed to the public.

The incident, which was reported to police several weeks later, prompted school officials to suspend the Strasburg boys’ basketball program indefinitely. Rumors about the incident started to appear on social media sites in mid January once the teams’ games had been suspended.

In response to media requests about the rumors, the superintendent and the Shenandaoh County Sheriff’s Office released separate statements in January. Raley stated they had received “what initially appears to be substantial allegations about physical misconduct among student athletes participating in the basketball program at Strasburg High School.” He told the Northern Virginia Daily last month that he could not comment on disciplinary action that might be taken against students or staff.

At Thursday’s meeting, Paul Weaver, a Strasburg resident and former 22-year educator, spoke about how the investigation into the incident should have been performed by the school division.

“I am here to call for an active, committed and autonomous review of the school division’s investigation. A work environment must encourage and support trust, mutual respect, open communications and risk taking,” he said.

Residents also spoke of their support for the Strasburg basketball teams’ coaches.

Gary Leake, a commissioner of basketball officials in the Shenandoah Valley, said he has “never had a problem with the leadership with Matt Hiserman of (the) Strasburg basketball team.”

Hiserman is the varsity boys’ basketball team coach and the school’s athletic director.

“He is one of the most professional and most passionate leaders I’ve worked with, and the most organized. He treats everyone involved with respect and dignity and has everyone’s best interest at heart,” Leake added.

Attorney David Silek, who is representing one of the students charged, spoke of crisis management within the division.

“I strongly suggest that the School Board adopt better crisis management policy than what you currently have in place because it has utterly failed,” he said.

“When the superintendent first made his various press releases concerning alleged student misconduct and alleging heinous crimes having been committed, he did more harm to your student body, to the alleged victim, to the alleged abusers or now criminal defendants,” he added.

Silek said coaches and students should have been talked to before news releases were sent out and the situation was made public.

“No one in authority has gone to these students on these sports teams, and it’s not just one sports team, it’s girls, boys, other teams. It still hasn’t happened and you’re a month into it. So Mr. Raley, why hasn’t that happened?” he asked.

“He dashed all basketball players’ hopes of going on to college ball or getting scholarships. Well done,” Silek said. “And the careers of at least three coaches and athletic director are all at risk, and let’s remember their families.”

“I think they just want to clean out old coaches that were in place before they came into power,” Silek said. “This is about power.”

Millson French, a former coach and teacher at Strasburg High School, voiced concerns over “knee-jerk policy changes that are adversely affecting faculty and student morale.”

“Teachers are being put into positions due to these policies that are unreasonable, uncomfortable and impossible to carry out and could cost them their jobs,” he said.

In regard to how students are responding to these policies, he said, “Students are walking on eggshells because they are being watched in uncomfortable situations.”

Tara Greene said the students and coaches have been treated like criminals.

“We need to educate and not persecute these students nor these coaches. These students and coaches have been treated like criminals and they’ve been abandoned by our school system. Some have been abandoned by their community and their peers,” she said.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com