Board demands sheriff turn over video
WOODSTOCK – The Shenandoah County School Board has filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Timothy C. Carter demanding that Carter let board members view a videotape of possible student misconduct on a bus carrying members of the boys’ junior varsity and varsity basketball teams at Strasburg High School.
The suit filed on March 31 also seeks to make the bus videotape available to a few students and their parents. The students are those in the midst of disciplinary proceedings launched by school authorities as a result of behavior reportedly captured on the video.
The lawsuit is the latest legal jab in a case that has already spawned criminal cases in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The defendants are seven boys – all charged with assault by mob – who were traveling on the bus on the way back from basketball games in Moorefield, West Virginia, on Dec. 19.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley and Carter, whose agency investigated the case, have reached conclusions about the incident that have differed markedly from Jeremy Raley, superintendent of Shenandoah County Public Schools, and a Leesburg attorney, although Raley, Carter, Wiseley and the outside attorney all have viewed the same tape.
The Leesburg attorney, E. Kate Fitzgerald, was hired by the school system under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that requires school officials to investigate accusations of sexual misconduct.
Wiseley and Carter have said they are lacking enough evidence to support charging anyone on the bus with a sexually related crime. Raley and Fitzgerald have been equally emphatic that the videotape and other evidence they have assembled show sexual offenses were committed on the bus, although they have stopped short of saying charges should be filed.
The School Board’s lawsuit seeks a court order that would force Carter to make the original videotape available for viewing at a closed meeting attended by board members, and students and parents directly involved in disciplinary proceedings stemming from the Dec. 19 bus trip. Wiseley also has a copy of the videotape, but she is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit cites Fitzgerald’s report of more than 20 pages that identified four separate incidents on the bus: “Aspects of each incident are captured on the video, which reportedly has been described to include student misconduct that ranges from inappropriate touching of another student’s genitalia and private area, to the penetration of another student’s anus using fingers and/or other objects.”
Carter said in an interview Tuesday that he had spoken to Wiseley about the lawsuit, and she had told him to withhold sharing of the videotape, which contains recordings of 31 students, many of whom are not defendants or victims in the case.
“The point I’m trying to make is they’re going to see records of other children that are not under disciplinary review,” Carter said.
Wiseley was out of town and not available for comment on the case.
School, law enforcement or court records containing information linking specific juveniles to alleged criminal wrongdoing are almost always withheld from the public, except in certain felony cases. But School Board members commonly review student conduct in closed sessions when administrators recommend suspensions, expulsions or other disciplinary actions.
A Sheriff’s Office report on a meeting Monday between two investigators and the parents of one of the defendants states that the student’s parents did not want the video released outside the “judicial process.”
Carter said in an affidavit replying to the lawsuit that the images of the videotape “would be normally considered part of the school record” and that such information cannot be released under state law without permission from students’ parents.
“I believe permission would need to be obtained from parents of all students on the school bus to be in compliance with” state law, Carter wrote.
Raley said in an interview Wednesday that three students linked to the bus incident have been recommended for expulsion, and a total of seven have been disciplined, one of whom is appealing to the board.
Court documents and a written statement issued by Raley on Wednesday describe a series of meetings and exchanges of letters between school officials, Wiseley and Carter over access to the videotape.
“Our school division continues to receive requests from parents to have the video available for board review,” Raley wrote. “Some parents and students also deny what is on the video, but have not seen the video, having been denied access to it. The school board is also mindful of and respects the need for parents and students to be fully informed and having a fair opportunity to respond. Out of fairness to students and parents, it is very important that the board have access to the video as part of its fact-finding process and in search for the truth. I have seen the video and have made recommendations based on both the video and the school division’s investigation. We believe that it is important that students and parents should have the opportunity to review and respond to the same information that I have.”
Karen Whetzel, chairwoman of the School Board, wrote a letter to Carter on March 21 asking him to grant Raley’s request.
“The video will be viewed in closed session and all discussions related to the video will likewise be in closed session,” Whetzel wrote. “All matters related to student discipline are confidential. In an effort to provide students and parents a fair opportunity to respond and to ensure that the board is fully informed prior to deliberation, I am having a hard time understanding why the sheriff’s department would deny the board access to the video. I welcome any information from you that will help me to understand this position.”
The School Board passed a resolution the next day authorizing Raley “to take such further action and execute such documents as may be necessary to obtain the video” and allow the board to conduct its duties under state law.
The lawsuit states that Strasburg High School Principal Morgan Saeler received his first report about the bus incident on Jan. 11 and quickly discovered the video on the bus surveillance system.
The lawsuit states Saeler reported what he had seen on the video to Strasburg police, the Sheriff’s Office and the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services.
The lawsuit reported: “The school division is no longer in possession of the video, having had to relinquish the original to deputies within the Sheriff’s (Office) when the student misconduct was initially reported to law enforcement upon the threat by law enforcement that some of the behavior captured on the video supposedly constitutes child pornography.”
David Silek, a defense attorney representing one of the students charged in the case, said in an interview last week that he and an attorney for one of the other defendants had been able to view the video as part of the legal system’s normal trial preparation process.
Silek said he and the other attorney agreed they had seen nothing on the video to suggest any sexual misconduct. Silek also renewed his earlier criticism of Raley and Saeler’s response to the incident.
“If the principal and superintendent really cared about all the students, this would have been handled in a far better way,” Silek said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: The name of the town in West Virginia where the basketball team played is Moorefield, West Virginia.