School Board votes at disciplinary hearing

Jeremy Raley

WOODSTOCK – The Shenandoah County School Board on Monday upheld recommendations by Superintendent Jeremy Raley for the expulsion of three students involved in an incident on a school bus carrying members of the Strasburg boys’ JV and varsity basketball teams.

Raley explained the outcomes of a closed meeting during which the board also voted to affirm the current suspension of a fourth student for the remainder of the school year. Raley said the board also supported his findings that two other students were in violation of School Board policy. Those two students were still in school Monday.

Raley said the expulsions will span 365 days. The students designated for expulsion will have a chance to petition the School Board for a return to school one year from Monday, depending upon whether a suitable education program is available for each petitioner, Raley said.

The meeting was held after months of discord between county law enforcement and school officials, students facing disciplinary action and their parents. School officials have also spoken of other students and staff members distracted by the controversy.

Part of the turmoil between law enforcement and school officials stemmed from a videotape of the school bus incident on Dec. 19. The board sued Sheriff Timothy C. Carter to allow members to view the tape – which was obtained from a surveillance system on the bus – at the disciplinary hearing.

Timothy C. Carter

Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson IV ruled in favor of the board. Carter insisted during the lawsuit that he had doubts about whether he had the legal authority to allow board members to view the tape, which the Sheriff’s Office seized as evidence in the early stages of the investigation.

Raley, a civil rights attorney hired by the school system, and high school principal Morgan Saeler have held fast to their findings that the incident involved sexual assault, despite the views of Carter and Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley that the available evidence, including the videotape, fell short of what they needed to charge anyone with a sex offense.

Seven students identified as participants in the incident pleaded guilty in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of assault or battery by mob, a misdemeanor.

Raley said in a written statement hours after the hearing that the decisions made “were not based solely on the video, but on all the information received, including … from students and their families, who also gave information and were given multiple opportunities to ask questions and share information.”

Raley’s statement made an indirect reference to the divisions created by the incident and the ensuing investigations conducted by school officials, law enforcement and social service agencies.

“To say this process has been difficult is an understatement,” Raley wrote. “We care about our students and our community. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. At the same time, we must be accountable for our actions and decisions.”

Carter said after Monday’s hearings that the viewing of the videotape went “pretty seamlessly” from a technical standpoint.

He said he dispatched two members of his department, Sgt. Mitch Vernazza and Investigator Kolter Stroop, to play the videotape on a television for board members. Carter said the two law enforcement officers were in the room with the board only while the videotape was playing. A hearing was held for each student, and only the part of the videotape deemed applicable to the specific student in the room was played, Carter said.

“From our perspective, from complying with the court order, it was pretty seamless,” Carter said. “To my knowledge, there were no complaints from board members or school staff. It was pretty clear what the judge wanted us to do, and we complied with the court order.”

Carter said Stroop and Vernazza were at the hearing or preparing for it from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

Carter said he and school officials worked closely in preparing for the hearing. Members of the Sheriff’s Office met with Raley on Thursday to discuss details for viewing the videotape and went over the parts of the video Raley wanted the board to see.

Raley called on students, teachers and administrators throughout the school system to “move forward.”

“These incidents do not define our successful school division, our amazing staff or any of our talented students,” Raley stated. “We will learn from this.”

Raley said school officials are planning initiatives “to further educate and create awareness of behavioral expectations and our school division’s policies.”

Carter said he, Vernazza and Stroop visited the room Sunday night to set up the equipment and “make sure everything was working.”

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

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