Judge OKs School Board viewing of videotape

Timothy C. Carter

A judge ruled Friday that Shenandoah County School Board members should be allowed to view a videotape that Sheriff Timothy C. Carter had been withholding from them on grounds that it was part of an ongoing criminal investigation and a legal requirement to protect the identity of juveniles.

Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson IV ordered Carter to “make the video available and to show it to the School Board, at the times determined by the School Board chair, in the presence of parents and the students at the upcoming School Board disciplinary hearings, in closed session.”

The disciplinary hearings Wilson referred to stem from an incident on a school bus carrying members of the Strasburg High School boys JV and varsity basketball teams on Dec. 19. The incident led to the filing of charges of assault or battery by mob against seven students and subsequent guilty pleas in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

School officials have also sought to discipline the students and several others who were not charged. A videotape obtained from a surveillance system on the bus during the incident had become the focus of a lawsuit filed by the School Board against Carter in an effort to obtain the videotape for the students’ disciplinary hearing.

The legal showdown culminated a few days ago with top law enforcement and school officials testifying for much of the day in a hearing conducted by Wilson. Wilson, who normally presides in Rockingham County, took over after Judge Dennis L. Hupp recused himself, citing his daughter’s participation in athletics at Strasburg High School.

Karen Whetzel

Carter said Friday he will not appeal Wilson’s decision and intends to comply with it.

“I’ve never looked at this as an adversarial issue,” Carter said, adding that he insisted on keeping the video away from the board until a judge ordered him to do otherwise.

“I needed a judge to give me direction as to what I could lawfully do as to their request,” Carter said of the board members. “We now have clarity.”

School Board Chairwoman Karen Whetzel said in an email message that board members were “in the process of reviewing the court’s decision and will consult with legal counsel about it.”

Whetzel made no further comment.

The disciplinary actions under consideration involve recommendations from Superintendent Jeremy Raley that three students be expelled. Three others are under long-term suspensions.

Many or all of the families of the suspended students have challenged the accuracy of school officials’ conclusions that the video shows sexual assault being committed during the incident. An outside attorney hired by the school system under Title IX, a federal civil rights law, reached the same conclusion. Carter, Wiseley and Sheriff’s Office investigators have said they do not have enough evidence to file sex offense charges.

Whetzel and other School Board members have cited Title IX requirements as a major reason why they need to see the video. They have said the law requires them to take steps to prevent further sexual harassment and to provide the students under suspension or facing expulsion with a chance to respond to the evidence.

Raley testified at the court hearing that the School Board is prepared to hold disciplinary hearings as early as Friday if the judge ruled in its favor.

Wilson wrote that “if the School Board cannot conduct the necessary hearings, it will not be able to fully address the incidents and will fail in its obligations to remedy the harassment. If it conducts the hearings without the video, it deprives the students and families of a fair opportunity to respond to the evidence against them.”

The video was initially viewed in January by Strasburg High School Principal Morgan Saeler and Raley who turned it over to the Sheriff’s Office with the understanding that it would continue to be made available to the school administrators if they asked. The list of those who have viewed the video or copies of it has grown since then to include investigators from the Sheriff’s Office; investigators from the Department of Social Services in two jurisdictions in Virginia; the Title IX attorney hired by the school system; Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley; most or all of the attorneys representing the students in court; and Carter.

Wiseley estimated at the hearing that 25 people have seen the video.

Wilson’s order includes a requirement that Carter make a deputy available to enter the closed disciplinary hearing, play whatever parts of the video the board requests and leave with the video after board members have viewed it.

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