School, law enforcement officials clash
WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County’s top law enforcement and school officials faced off against each other Wednesday in a courtroom drama sparked by a lawsuit filed by the School Board against Sheriff Timothy C. Carter.
The School Board wants Carter to allow its members and a few students and parents to view a videotape at a disciplinary hearing. The hearing stems from an incident on a school bus carrying members of the Strasburg High School boys junior varsity and varsity basketball teams. The incident led to the filing of charges of assault or battery by mob against seven students on the bus and school suspensions and possible expulsions against a total of eight students.
Carter, backed by advice from Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley, has refused to grant board members access to the tape, citing laws governing the confidentiality of juvenile court cases, protection of victims and other legal issues.
The case has also split school administrators and law enforcement officials over what the videotape shows about student conduct on the bus. School officials have insisted that the videotape clearly shows sexual misconduct by several students. Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office testified Wednesday they saw no such evidence on the tape.
Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson IV, who normally presides in Rockingham County, heard about five hours of testimony in the Shenandoah County Historic Courthouse. The witnesses included Carter, Wiseley, Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Raley, Strasburg High School Principal Morgan Saelor and School Board Chairwoman Karen Whetzel.
“We feel we need to see the video to make a just and fair decision,” Whetzel said, referring to the pending disciplinary action. “There is no substitute for the video.”
Wilson said at the end of the hearing he would issue a written opinion on Friday that may decide the case.
Both sides clung hard to their positions under steady grilling by opposing attorneys. Harwell Darby Jr., a private attorney from Roanoke, represented Carter. Lindsay Brubaker and Douglas Guynn, of Harrionsburg, represented the School Board.
Under questioning by Guynn, Wiseley testified that she briefly discussed filing an obstruction of justice charge against E. Kate Fitzgerald, a Leesburg attorney who was hired by the School Board to conduct an investigation into the incident. School officials have said that a federal civil rights law governing accusations of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination required them to hire an attorney to conduct an independent investigation.
Fitzgerald’s written report cited statements of two student witnesses indicating that the behavior of some of the other students on the bus involved sexual assault. Carter and other law enforcement officials testified that they have tried to learn from Fitzgerald the identities of the students but she has refused to disclose them, citing attorney-client privilege.
“We just said it in passing in our office,” Wiseley said of the possibility of filing an obstruction of justice charge against Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald was also the target of comments contained in a brief Wiseley submitted late Tuesday in support of Carter.
“Interestingly enough, Ms. Fitzgerald would not divulge the names of those sources of information because she stated not only could she not divulge the names, she also couldn’t remember who told her the information,” Wiseley wrote in the brief.
Fitzgerald was not in the courtroom and not among those called to testify at the hearing.
Carter denied accusations from Guynn that members of the Sheriff’s Office had tried to intimidate Fitzgerald when they sought to learn the names of her student sources.
“I don’t believe there was any bullying,” Carter said.
Saelor and Raley gave their most detailed statements about what they believe the video shows and the need for the School Board to see it.
They say their investigation focused on one of four incidents shown on the video as the bus traveled back to Strasburg from a game in Moorefield, West Virginia.
“What I saw on that video I have to describe as appalling,” Raley said.
Saelor had much the same reaction when he first viewed the video, which was taken from a surveillance system on the bus.
“It was shocking,” Saelor said, adding that he had to “take a few minutes processing what I had just seen.”
Saelor said the assailants pulled the victim’s pants down to his ankles, had his legs flipped up over his head and then sexually assaulted him. Another student “spiked” a McDonald’s cup on the victim.
“Other students bragged how that was the best lynching ever,” Saelor said, using a slang term for the kind of the behavior he had just described.
Saelor said the school bus incident and investigations, court cases and political discord are taking a heavy emotional toll on students and teachers each day they go unresolved.
“We find it harder and harder to focus on our mission,” Saelor said.
Brubaker told Wilson that the differing versions from school and law enforcement officials of what appears on the videotape show exactly why the School Board members need to see it themselves and make their own judgments.
“That captures it perfectly, your honor,” Brubaker said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org