Superintendent ‘appalled’ by school bus incident

Jeremy Raley

In his strongest comments about an incident involving accusations of physical misconduct on a school bus carrying members of the Strasburg High School boys basketball teams, Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Raley Friday condemned the actions of students and school staff members.

Raley delivered his comments in a written statement announcing the completion of a 25-page investigative report, a report that Raley suggested he played a prominent role in compiling.

Raley cited repeated viewing of “an extensive video recording of students’ treatment of their peers” as a major factor in the conclusions he has reached about the incident. He also reported receiving “information from students and parents” and conducting “numerous” meetings with students and staff members believed to “have had any involvement or responsibility.”

He did not spare school employees from criticism of their roles in the incident.

“As superintendent, I am appalled by what I have learned, and I am unwilling to diminish or excuse the student misconduct or the staff misjudgments,” Raley wrote.

After taking a softer tone toward those involved in the incident, Raley grew stern again: “We are all human. We all make mistakes of a different magnitude at different times in our lives. At the same time, there must be accountability and responsibility for an individual’s actions or omissions. Our student-athletes and our coaches are expected to be role models in and out of school.”

The two-page letter did not give details about how school officials are responding to the incident, but Raley wrote that “changes to improve the athletic department at Strasburg High School and division wide” are on the way.

The goal, Raley said, is “to reduce the likelihood that such situations will recur.” He added that his proposed changes require approval by the School Board.

An unspecified number of students connected to the incident could also receive “further disciplinary action” under a recommendation Raley has made to the School Board.

Seven students are already facing related charges of assault or battery by mob filed under petitions in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

The incident also led Raley to initially suspend all basketball practices and games for the boys junior varsity and varsity basketball teams, a suspension that eventually led to the forfeiture of all games remaining on this season’s schedule.

The details of the alleged offenses and the identities of the students remain officially shrouded in secrecy under laws intended to shield juvenile defendants from excessive publicity.

Raley’s statement confirmed an earlier disclosure from Sheriff Timothy C. Carter and Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley that there was more than one separate incident on the bus as the basketball teams were returning from an away game in West Virginia on Dec. 19.

“In essence, the independent report ultimately finds that four separate incidents occurred on the Dec. 19, 2015 school bus ride transporting the Strasburg boys basketball teams, each of which involved prohibitive conduct in violation of our school board policies,” Raley stated.

Raley said the report also contained “a basis for finding that several students have experienced substantial, physical mistreatment at other times.”

The case was reported to school system officials in early January and initially treated as a sexual assault investigation. Carter and Wiseley said in February they lacked evidence to file charges alleging sexual misconduct, but Raley stood by earlier assertions that the incident was more than simple physical abuse.

Raley said the school system and criminal justice systems have different standards and procedures for investigating accusations of wrongdoing. He cited School Board policies and the federal government’s Title IX law, which encompasses protections against sex discrimination and other improprieties in educational settings, as the basis for the school system’s investigation.

“To the extent we could, we have . . . worked cooperatively with other local agencies, including law enforcement,” Raley wrote. “We each have different duties under the law and different rules have to be applied as we weigh the implications of the information.

“At the same time, as a school system, we have legal obligations under Title IX, a federal law, which mandates that we take steps to address what may be considered as sexual misconduct.”

Carter said in an interview that he and Wiseley met with Raley a few days ago to talk about the investigation.

“I think Jeremy and I are saying the same thing,” Carter said. “We’re just saying it in different ways.”

Carter and Wiseley said previously they did not foresee any more charges being filed as a result of the investigation unless new information emerged, a possibility that Carter raised in reacting to the school system’s investigation.

“The commitment we made is for us to see if we can get the information they have and see if it can be obtained and used in our criminal investigation,” Carter said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com