For months a sort of aerosolized fury had hung over the Loudoun County school district. There were fights over Covid closures and mask mandates, over racial-equity programs, over library books. Now, in the weeks before the school board’s meeting on June 22, 2021, attention had shifted to a new proposal: Policy 8040, which would let transgender students choose pronouns, play sports and use bathrooms in accordance with their declared gender identity. In May, an elementary-school gym teacher announced that as a “servant of God,” he felt he could not follow the policy. The district swiftly suspended him — and just as swiftly, the antennae of conservative media outlets and politicians swiveled toward Loudoun County.
The entire Republican ticket for that fall’s statewide elections made a pilgrimage to Loudoun, a swath of Washington exurbs in Northern Virginia that is the highest-median-income county in America and the fourth-most-populous in the state. “Fox & Friends” broadcast live from a local diner. “This won’t stop in #LoudounCounty,” the Family Foundation of Virginia, a conservative religious organization in Richmond, tweeted. “It’s coming to your schools and children too.” County Democrats urged supporters of the proposed policy to make their own voices heard at the upcoming meeting, and everyone descended upon the school administration building in the town of Ashburn.
Inside, the room looked like Facebook come to life. There were “mama bears” and dads in tactical-themed leisure apparel and signs proclaiming solidarity with “We the Parents.” There were rainbow-flag face masks and Black Lives Matter T-shirts and buttons affirming the many other tenets of yard-sign liberalism. It was rare that the warring ideological tribes of suburbia actually met each other on an offline field of battle, and TV crews were on hand to document the occasion.
“That meeting,” Beth Barts, a member of the school board at the time, later recalled, “just went to hell.” During the public-comment period, a Republican former state legislator accused the board of “teaching children to hate others because of their skin color” and “forcing them to lie about other kids’ gender.” When the crowd, which had been warned against disruptions, cheered, the board voted to end public comment. The crowd booed loudly. A man in the third row stood and extended both middle fingers at the board members, who were hastily ushered into a secure back room.
Scanning the scene for signs of trouble, a sheriff’s deputy named Timothy Iversen saw a middle-aged man in a plumbing-company T-shirt arguing over a row of chairs with a woman wearing a top emblazoned with a rainbow heart. “You’re a bitch,” the man said, clenching his fist.
Iversen grabbed him by the arm, but he resisted. Another deputy rushed in, and the two officers tackled the man, crashing through chairs. The second deputy punched him several times. A third knelt on his back. Pinned beneath the deputies, the man screamed that he couldn’t breathe. His mouth was smeared with blood. The man’s wife stood nearby. “My child was raped at school!” she shouted. “And this is what happens!”
After the deputies arrested the man and loaded him into their van, his wife explained the situation. Their names were Scott and Jessica Smith, and they owned a small plumbing business in Leesburg, a nearby town. Weeks earlier, their 15-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted by a boy in a girls’ bathroom at her high school in Ashburn. The boy was wearing a skirt.
“I wasn’t even concerned about the fact that it was a boy wearing a skirt in the girls’ bathroom at the time,” Scott Smith later told me. “I’m focused on the fact that my daughter just got raped.” On the day of the assault, he went to the school and erupted at the principal. A sheriff’s deputy assigned as the school resource officer escorted him out of the building. After that, Smith found himself subject to what seemed to him to be a series of escalating affronts. When Loudoun County Public Schools sent an email later that day to Stone Bridge families to inform them of an incident there, it was about Smith’s outburst and made no mention of a sexual assault.
At the June 22 school-board meeting, Smith said, the woman he was confronting when the deputy grabbed him — a mother whose daughter had been in a Girl Scout troop led by his wife — had called him a liar and threatened to ruin his plumbing business on social media. The school authorities, too, seemed to deny that the assault occurred at all.
“Do we have assaults in our bathrooms or locker rooms regularly?” Barts, the school-board member, asked when the board reconvened later that evening in an empty chamber and discussed the transgender policy.
“To my knowledge, we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms,” Scott Ziegler, the schools’ superintendent, replied. But Ziegler knew there was an investigation underway into the assault of Smith’s daughter, and he had notified the school-board members.
In time, Smith came to believe that he knew why all this happened. So did Smith’s many champions in conservative media and Republican politics. The assault of his daughter, they would argue, revealed a hidden architecture of power: the power that liberal elites had accrued in the school system of Loudoun County and counties like it all over the country. They were wielding that power to force bewildering cultural changes upon not just schools but American society as a whole, through measures like Loudoun County’s proposed Policy 8040. “It was clear,” Scott Walker, the Republican former governor of Wisconsin, wrote about the Loudoun County episode in a 2022 Washington Times op-ed, “that the school board and administrators were more concerned about furthering their transgender agenda than protecting the safety of students.”
The particulars of Smith’s daughter’s case — an attacker in a skirt, a girls’ bathroom — posed an obvious threat to the new policy. And so, critics charged, school officials buried it, and because they buried it, more harm was done. When it all came to light months later, this theory of the case would galvanize a local conservative parents’-rights movement, help swing a governor’s race and rattle the politics of gender in America far beyond Virginia.
This was one version of the story of Loudoun County. But as prosecutors took up the matter over the next two years, a different story began to take shape — one that is told here based on court records and testimony, as well as months of interviews with participants in the events at the heart of the scandal, in some cases discussing them on the record for the first time, and hundreds of pages of documents obtained through public-records requests. This evidence presents a much more complicated picture of what happened, in Loudoun County and beyond, in a period of escalating culture wars that have consumed the same communities and institutions that the combatants insist they want to save.
Loudoun County’s current population of about 432,000, larger than that of New Orleans, is five times what it was in 1990. Starting in the late ’90s, a combination of cheap land and cheap electricity made Ashburn, a small community originally known as Farmville, into the East Coast hub for the data-center industry. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars and post-financial-crisis stimulus spending, meanwhile, created a federal contracting bonanza that enriched Washington’s economy and pushed suburban expansion deeper into the Beltway’s rural periphery. The transformation has been so recent and total that the fastest-growing suburbs in Loudoun tend to resemble architectural renderings of themselves: arteries of immaculate asphalt lined with evenly spaced cherry saplings, tessellations of residential subdivisions with near-identical fake colonials.
Loudoun County’s new professional class pulled the once solidly Republican county’s politics leftward, and in 2018, a resignation ended the Republican majority on the school board. (School-board elections are nonpartisan, but candidates usually run with local party endorsements.) The next year’s election gave the Democrats seven of nine board seats, one of which went to Beth Barts.
“I never got involved in politics ever,” Barts told me in June at a Starbucks in Leesburg. She ran for the school board, she said, “because I felt like Leesburg was changing, based on all of the development.” But when Barts took office, the district’s growing pains were not what seemed to animate the people who came to school-board meetings. The Loudoun County schools had recently been drawn into several controversies over race and gender: uproars over an Underground Railroad-themed game in an elementary-school gym class, a D.E.I. consultant’s critical report, a diverse-books initiative by school libraries that led to complaints from local conservatives, mostly about L.G.B.T.Q.-themed books. These sorts of episodes were not unique to Loudoun County, but when they happened there, people tended to notice. Northern Virginia was the ancestral haven of Washington conservatives, and they had taken the region’s leftward drift personally, as a kind of dispossession.
Andrea Weiskopf, a middle-school English teacher and vocal critic of the conservative activism in the school district, pointed out that this heightened, politicized attention came at a moment when the school district was fast losing its small-town intimacy and trust and taking on an exurban impersonality. Half of the district’s 18 high schools opened in 2010 or later. In 2014, the superintendent who ran the district for nearly a quarter century — a Loudoun County native who “knew everyone’s sister’s dog’s name,” Weiskopf said — retired. His successors were less familiar, which made their forays into racial equity and gender inclusivity seem less familiar still.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, Loudoun County descended into a bitter struggle over reopening schools. As that fight grew tangled up in fights over equity programs, critical race theory and gender policies, Loudoun County became regular fodder for Fox News and other conservative outlets. Parent groups proliferated on Facebook, arrayed on either side of the county’s, and America’s, hardening partisan identity politics.
One of them, a private group called Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County, included a number of local Democratic officials, Barts among them. Barts did not consider herself especially partisan. But she also said what she thought, and, as one former school-board member told me, “she was always — always — online.” In March 2021, she warned in a post to the group that “this CRT ‘movement’ for lack of a better word is gaining support.” Another member of the group began crowdsourcing a list of people on the other side of the local fights over race and Covid and put out a call for “hackers who can shut down their websites or direct them to pro-CRT/anti-racist information pages.” Inevitably, the conversation leaked to the people on the list. Most fatefully, it leaked to a man named Ian Prior.
A lawyer turned public-relations and political consultant, Prior was a former spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the conservative American Crossroads super PAC and the Trump administration’s Department of Justice. He had two young daughters in the Loudoun County public schools and had dipped a toe into local school politics in the fall of 2020, writing a piece for the right-wing site The Federalist denouncing the school district’s racial-equity efforts.
“Most parents aren’t fully engaged in this,” Prior told me over coffee this spring at a Barnes & Noble cafe in Ashburn. Only a relative sliver fully shared the concerns of the activists. “It’s 10 percent here, 10 percent there,” he said, gesturing to his right and left. The school fights were, ultimately, a “battle between those 10 percents.”
The problem for liberals was, paradoxically, that they had largely won the battle of the 10 percents. Educational pedagogy and the administrative class had rapidly become suffused with ideas, particularly about race and gender, that were unfamiliar and often radical to many if not most people, even many who thought of themselves as liberal and inclusive. And they were often encountering these ideas for the first time through the opaque bureaucracy of the school system.
The outlet for their unease was the school board, the rare place where that system meets electoral accountability. And in the antiracist Facebook group, Prior saw opportunity. Because the private group included more than two school-board members, he reasoned, they were potentially in violation of open-meeting laws. He organized a new parents’-rights group he called Fight for Schools and began a campaign to recall Democratic school-board members, starting with Beth Barts.
The recall effort would also serve as a kind of political narrative device, for keeping attention on the district’s policymakers. “There’s a disconnect between what they’re doing and what parents want,” Prior told me of the school administrators. “What did we do? We just brought attention to it in a major way.”
The spring of 2021 was a fraught, jittery moment in the county schools. Aside from the politics swirling around the district, staff members were navigating the return to full-time in-person instruction, which had just begun for some students, and the social problems that followed a year of isolation. It was in this context that on May 12, a teacher’s assistant at Stone Bridge High School wrote an email to her department chairwoman.
There was a boy in her class, the teacher’s assistant wrote, who “seems to have a problem with listening and keeping his hands to himself.” He had come into class more than once with his arm around a girl’s neck. “I have caught him sitting on other girls’ laps several times,” she wrote. “I understand that the school year is quickly ending, and that students and staff alike are counting down the days, but if this kind of reckless behavior persists, I wouldn’t want to be held accountable if someone should get hurt.”
“He was always kind of doing his own thing,” the mother of the boy told me recently, picking at a muffin in a supermarket food court. “That’s always been the challenge with him.” She had done what she could, she said, had tried to work with his teachers. But what could she do when he was at school? “As parents,” she said, “we can’t fix it if we don’t know what’s going on.”
As she saw it, the hall passes were the start of the trouble. There was an app on the school-issued laptops that allowed students to check out of class. When they did, teachers seemed not to watch closely how long they were gone — a fact her son, 14 at the time, had quickly come to understand. So had a girl he met through mutual friends early that spring.
She had recently transferred to Stone Bridge from a school in Leesburg, after an incident the previous fall in which she said several teenage boys in the neighborhood had threatened her, according to Scott Smith, her father. Smith said that he and his wife sought psychiatric care for her after the incident. In a meeting with school staff members, they explained that their daughter “needed extra supervision,” he said. “They assured us they would keep an eye on her.”
Late on the morning of May 28, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, the girl messaged the boy from her school laptop, according to court records.
“Bro I’m so bored,” she wrote.
They had slipped out of class before to meet in girls’ bathrooms around the school. They had met in a stall to have sex at least once before, and this morning, the boy suggested something similar.
“We could call a pass,” he wrote. “Have some ‘fun’”
“Maybe,” the girl wrote back.
“What about the bathrooms by the Tech Ed classroom?” he proposed.
The girl hesitated for a moment before replying, “I’ll meet u but I’m not promises anything”
“Wait for me,” she added.
An hour and a half later, at 1:28 p.m., Tim Flynn, the school principal, emailed two district administrators. “I have a female student who alleges another student attempted to rape her in the bathroom today,” he wrote. “We are sending this to law enforcement. The girl is currently with the nurse.”
Months later, in juvenile court, the girl would testify that she and the boy had met in the handicapped stall of the girls’ bathroom. When the boy began to touch her, she resisted. The boy became more aggressive, she said. He lay her down on her stomach on the floor and anally penetrated her.
At that moment, a teacher’s assistant came into the bathroom, and the boy jumped up. The woman would later testify that she saw two pairs of feet beneath the stall door but thought little of it; pairs of girls were often in a stall together. After she left, the boy forced the girl to perform oral sex on him, the girl said. They left the bathroom at the same time, and the girl went to the nurse’s office.
Tavis Henry, the sheriff’s deputy who served as the school resource officer for Stone Bridge, had just begun to interview the girl when her mother arrived, followed later by her father. Scott Smith had an employee drive him to the school, and he began shouting when school staff denied him entrance because he didn’t have his driver’s license. When Henry came out to meet him, Smith told me, he told the officer: “I’m coming through the door. [Expletive] tackle me or escort me. Your choice.”
When Smith met Flynn outside the main office, he was “enraged — very loud,” Flynn testified in court. “He wanted to know where the boy was that had done this.” He was acting aggressively enough toward Flynn that Henry placed himself between them. “I was upset,” Smith acknowledged. Henry called for more deputies and walked Smith out of the building.
Until recently, the only detailed firsthand account of the confrontation to be made public was Smith’s own, which would shape much of the political narrative around the sexual assault. In his telling, Henry and the school authorities had seemed frozen and inattentive to the task of investigating his daughter’s assault until Smith arrived, demanding action. In court this June, Flynn and Henry gave a different account. Smith’s belligerence, Henry said, made him “shift my attention” away from investigating the assault. And his outburst had occurred within earshot of students, many of them with phones and social media accounts. “This was bad,” Flynn recalled thinking.
Flynn and the district administrators hurried to put out a statement before the inevitable rumors started. The email to district families mentioned the incident with Smith, though it did not name him, and it made no mention of the sexual assault. This was, district officials later testified, not a strategic omission, but rather a reflection of school policy, given that the episode was under investigation. And school staff members remained uncertain about what exactly occurred in the bathroom.
Henry’s interview of the girl had been cut short by her parents’ arrival — she would not be interviewed by a detective until later that afternoon — and he would later testify that he at first assumed that the bathroom encounter was consensual; he had seen the same boy and girl holding hands in the hallway in the past. Wayde Byard, the school district’s public-information officer, later testified that it was, “as far as we knew, a boyfriend-girlfriend situation that had somehow gone in the wrong direction.” (Smith disputed that his daughter had anything resembling a relationship with the boy. “They were never boyfriend-girlfriend,” he said.) Dispatch records from the sheriff’s office that day described the incident in cautious terms, reporting that the girl had “made allegations of being possibly raped or touched unwanted by another student.”
There was one detail, though, that seemed to concern school administrators immediately. The boy, when he entered the girls’ bathroom, was wearing a skirt.
It was this fact that prompted Kevin Lewis, the district’s chief operations officer, to email several of the district’s top administrators that afternoon, announcing that he was convening a virtual meeting to discuss the situation.
“The incident at SBHS,” he wrote, “is related to policy 8040.”
The proposed transgender policy was not the school board’s idea. It was required by a law that Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, signed in March 2020 at the end of a whirlwind legislative session by the newly Democratic-controlled statehouse. The new law required school boards to adopt policies in line with a model policy from the State Department of Education establishing transgender students’ rights. In effect, this kicked the policy debate from the state level, where Democrats held power, down to the county school boards, where conservative activists were becoming a formidable force.
Dozens of those activists went to speak at the Loudoun County School Board’s May 25 meeting, as did a Leesburg elementary-school physical-education teacher named Tanner Cross. “I’m a teacher,” Cross said, “but I serve God first. And I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa. Because it’s against my religion. It’s lying to a child. It’s abuse to a child.”
Cross’s comments drew widespread attention, and he was placed on administrative leave. Over the following days, angry emails began arriving at his school, some of them coordinated by the antiracist Facebook group. Cross’s “reluctance to show respect to a child by using their proper name and pronouns can result in their DEATH,” Christina Croll, a former school-board member, wrote. “To me, that makes Mr. Cross a weapon. And weapons are not allowed in schools.”
One mother wrote that her son “loved” the gym teacher, “and as a little guy, always felt strong and good about himself under Mr. Cross’s teaching.” But the boy’s older sibling was nonbinary, the mother explained. “They have been through a lot this year: depression, self harm,” an assessment showing a risk of suicide. “This is a mental health and safety issue for both my children.”
When Cross was suspended, the county’s long-smoldering tensions exploded. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization, dispatched a lawyer to represent Cross in a lawsuit against the school district. (A judge ordered him reinstated that June. He later settled with the school district, and the suspension was wiped from his record.) In a sermon, the pastor of the conservative evangelical megachurch that Cross attended accused the school board of “emotionally abusing our children by perpetuating lies about gender confusion” and let volunteers from Ian Prior’s recall effort gather signatures at the church.
“We were cooking with gasoline at this point,” Prior said.
Scott Ziegler, who approved Cross’s suspension, watched these developments closely. He was promoted to interim superintendent in the middle of the pandemic, when many of the school controversies were already underway. “I knew it would be rocky,” he told me. From his seat on the dais at the school-board meetings in the spring of 2021, he watched the machinations of Ian Prior — “a kind of out-of-work Trumper” — and noted what seemed to be a direct pipeline from public-comment speeches to Fox News highlight reels. At the meetings, he told me, he and other administration members would quietly bet one another “how many trifectas we were going to get in public comment”: how many speakers would bring up Covid, critical race theory and transgender policy in their allotted 60 seconds.
Ziegler, who is now 55, was a Dead Kennedys and Ramones fan in his youth and a police chaplain and, for a time, a Republican in adulthood. Over the course of his career as a teacher and then an administrator in districts across the state, he came to lean left on most social issues — and, on the issues that had lately roiled his district, he was unequivocal. “I think that schools should always be welcoming for all students, regardless of gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, all of these things,” he said.
The bathroom incident at Stone Bridge High School happened at the precise moment that Policy 8040 became a statewide political story. Ziegler told me that when the administrators assembled for their virtual meeting on the afternoon of the assault, or in another conversation that day, he asked Tim Flynn, the Stone Bridge principal, whether the assailant was transgender.
“Look, the kid is not transgender,” Ziegler recalled Flynn saying. “He runs with the drama crowd, and you know how the drama crowd can be. They’re attention-seeking. And he’s been experimenting with different looks.” He wore skirts on occasion, “but he has never come out to the school as either nonbinary or transgender.” (Flynn did not respond to requests for comment.)
The boy’s mother described her son similarly. “He had presented to me this desire to explore a different lifestyle,” she said, which involved sometimes wearing women’s clothes. But he was “absolutely not” transgender, she said, and “he did not identify as fluid or anything like that.” If the boy had never to anyone’s knowledge identified as anything other than a boy, Ziegler reasoned, then he would not have been allowed in the girls’ bathroom under Policy 8040 any more than he would have been under the existing rules.
Ziegler told me that when Beth Barts asked her question about bathroom assaults at the June 22 school-board meeting, he understood it to refer to assaults by transgender students, which the board members had been discussing. “The answer to that was, and is to this day, no,” he told me — a point that he made directly later in the meeting.
But whatever his intentions might or might not have been, his answer was, on its face, false. And it was only a matter of time before someone noticed.
The day after Scott Smith’s arrest, the family posted a brief statement on the public Facebook page of their plumbing company, Plumb Crazy, referring to the “traumatic nightmare that our family, specifically our daughter has been enduring since our daughter was sexually assaulted in her High School Bathroom by another student.”
The Smiths were contacted through a mutual friend by Patti Menders, the president of the Loudoun County Republican Women’s Club. She arranged a video call with the couple, Ian Prior and another parents’-rights activist. “I was horrified,” Prior later wrote. “But I was also intrigued about how this might impact Policy 8040.”
In 2016 and 2017, Republican state lawmakers across the country, responding to recent court decisions and federal and local policies advancing transgender rights, had introduced 61 “bathroom bills”: legislation that would legally obligate people to use the public restroom of their birth gender. Many of the bills were based on a model policy drafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization that later defended Tanner Cross, which had a history of litigating against expansions in L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Advocates for the legislation often claimed that the bills weren’t really about transgender rights at all, but about public safety. “It’s about preventing a free pass to sexual predators, who are not transgender, to be able to walk into any bathroom with any child or any woman at any time,” Dan Patrick, Texas’ lieutenant governor, said at the time.
The problem with this argument was that there was no evidence, from the few municipalities and school districts with transgender-friendly bathroom policies, that such policies had led to an increase in sexual assaults. When it came to the safety of transgender and nonbinary youths, the opposite was true: A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that they were more likely to report having been sexually assaulted if their bathroom and locker-room access at school was restricted. In all but one state, North Carolina, the bathroom bills failed. As Scott Ziegler put it at the June 22 school-board meeting, citing a 2016 Time magazine story, “the predator transgender student or person simply does not exist.” Yet the details of Scott Smith’s daughter’s assault — the skirt, the bathroom — and Ziegler’s denial in the meeting now seemed to potentially suggest otherwise.
Although the full story wasn’t yet known, Smith’s arrest had already made him a sympathetic figure on the right. Across the country, conservative protests at suburban school-board meetings were regularly ending in clashes with law enforcement that were cast as evidence of either an increasingly violent and tantrum-based right-wing politics or liberals’ heightened intolerance of dissent. ProPublica tallied 59 arrests, a vast majority of them white suburbanites, at school-board meetings over 18 months starting in May 2021.
In most cases the charges were dropped, but in Smith’s they were not. Loudoun County’s elected prosecutor, Buta Biberaj, a Democrat, decided to personally prosecute Smith’s case, despite the relatively minor charges of obstruction and disorderly conduct. (Biberaj told me she did so because, given the intensity of the school-board fight, there was likely to be “animosity toward the attorney who tried it,” she said. “I didn’t want to subject our attorneys to that.”) Smith was convicted and received a suspended sentence. He is appealing his conviction. The judge, a Republican who served as the county’s prosecutor before Biberaj, has since ordered her removed from the case, citing “concerns about public confidence in the integrity of the prosecution.”
On Aug. 11, as the school board met and passed Policy 8040, parents’-rights activists held a rally outside the administration building. One of the speakers was Dick Black, the Republican former state senator who, at the chaotic June meeting, claimed that board members were forcing schoolchildren to lie about gender. Now the winds of an approaching thunderstorm rippled a “Protect Every Kid” banner as Black denounced the board. “They’re scared of the public!” he shouted. “They’re scared of the voters!”
Then Black told the full story of Scott Smith’s arrest at the last meeting, the first time anyone had done so publicly, though he didn’t name him. “His daughter, at Stone Bridge High School, had one of these guys wearing a girl’s dress go into the girls’ bathroom and forcibly sodomize her,” Black said. The crowd erupted into boos. “That was the man who was arrested!”
A week and a half after Scott Smith’s arrest, the county sheriff’s office had finally filed felony sexual-assault charges against the boy, and he was taken into custody in early July. A notification of the charges against him — the only formal notification the school district was to receive — was sent to the district that month, but it was addressed to an employee who no longer worked in the central administration and, according to officials, was misplaced in the interoffice mail.
The boy’s mother was attending a juvenile-court hearing in August when she realized that nobody in the district had yet contacted her with a plan for where her son was to be placed the coming school year, since he was not allowed to return to Stone Bridge. She reached out to an administrator who initiated a transfer to another school in Ashburn, Broad Run High School. Then she arranged a meeting with David Spage, the school’s principal, and other school administrators. “They were made aware of the charges,” she recalled. Still, the boy was enrolled in regular classroom instruction. (Spage declined to comment.)
Soon after the boy started at Broad Run, reports began arriving in Spage’s office. An art teacher who had the boy in her class reported that two female students had complained that he was following them around and asked to be seated away from him in class. In an English class, the boy made sexual comments to a girl, grabbed her roughly by the shoulder and asked if she had posted any nude photos online. The only disciplinary measure the school took was asking the boy to write a brief statement. “I will not touch others,” he wrote on a sheet of notebook paper. “I will not ask for photos.”
On the afternoon of Oct. 6, the boy’s mother was at work when she received a voice mail message from Corinne Czekaj, the detective from the sheriff’s office who was investigating the May bathroom assault. Czekaj said she was at Broad Run.
“I need you to give me a call,” she said.
The second assault victim was also a girl the boy knew. He had asked her to walk with him between classes, and she agreed. Video footage from the school’s security cameras captured him putting his arm around the girl’s neck and pulling her into an empty classroom. There, he held her in a chokehold and groped her.
On Oct. 7, the sheriff’s office put out a brief statement. Within hours, the assailant’s identity had circulated among the district’s parents, including Ian Prior. Prior called Luke Rosiak, a reporter for The Daily Wire. “Dude,” Prior recalled telling him, “this is the same kid.”
A conservative media company co-founded by the pundit Ben Shapiro, The Daily Wire had become particularly dedicated to hostile coverage of “gender ideology” and was home to prominent right-wing commentators who were frank about their aim to, as the contributor Michael Knowles later put it, “eradicate transgenderism from public life.” In September, with the assistance of the county Republican Women’s Club president, Patti Menders, the Daily Wire commentator Matt Walsh attended a Loudoun County school-board meeting and spoke during the public-comment period. “You are all child abusers,” he told them. “You prey upon impressionable children and indoctrinate them into your insane ideological cult.” A video that Walsh posted of his remarks received more than 10 million views on YouTube.
Rosiak was more of a reporter than a polemicist, and for a year he had been perhaps the most dogged chronicler of the dramas and outrages around the Loudoun County schools, a favorite journalist contact among local activists. He had been talking to Scott Smith for months. In the article he published that week, the disparate outrages of Loudoun County became a single story culminating in the second assault, all the pieces snapping into place with an almost audible click. Smith had wanted justice for his daughter — and, for his efforts, had been persecuted and humiliated at every turn by Loudoun County’s liberal school administrators, working hand in glove with local Democratic elected officials.
Noting that the school board was in the middle of trying to pass Policy 8040, Rosiak pointed to the significance of the meeting exchange between Barts and Ziegler in which Ziegler denied knowledge of any assaults in school bathrooms. “A school policy passed following what appear to be false statements from the superintendent — a policy whose passage would have been politically impossible had Smith’s story seen the light of day,” Rosiak wrote.
Appearing on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News that evening, he went further. “It raises the possibility,” he said, “that the Loudoun County Public Schools covered up the rape of a 14-year-old girl at the hands of a boy wearing a skirt in order to pass a school policy that Democrats were adamant about passing — and as a result of concealing that, a second girl was raped last week.”
There had been no second rape — the second sexual assault, though it was never fully described by law enforcement, was charged as a misdemeanor — but by now, the story was fast slipping loose of the evidence at hand. “A ninth-grade girl, 14, reportedly sexually assaulted in a bathroom by a self-described transgender student wearing a skirt,” Carlson told his audience. (The girl’s age was stated incorrectly repeatedly.) Laura Ingraham told hers: “The rights of transgender students being put over the rights of regular folks.” “I’ve heard you sick, disgusting pigs are fine with hiding the sexual assault of a young girl by a trans boy,” read one of many death threats the school-board members received. “You people need to be arrested, tried and then hung by the neck until you’re dead for hiding this.”
Virginia was in the midst of its governor’s race, and the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, had embraced the parents’-rights movement — and embraced its stand in Loudoun County. After the suspension of Tanner Cross, the gym teacher, he went on Fox News to demand his reinstatement. “What we’re seeing right here, right now in Loudoun County, is the liberal left waging a culture war, and the victims are our children,” Youngkin said. In June, he held a rally outside the Loudoun County schools’ administrative building in Ashburn.
His opponent, the former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, had paid little heed to the schools issue. When the subject came up onstage at the candidates’ final debate that fall, McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” By the early hours of the following morning, it was the main Fox News headline from the debate.
That day, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Biden warning that “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an imminent threat,” citing months of disruption, threats and violence directed at school boards and administrators. It called on the federal government to “investigate, intercept and prevent the current threats and acts of violence.” Its litany of school-board-meeting unrest included Scott Smith’s arrest in Loudoun County. The association’s board, under heavy criticism from parents’-rights groups and Republican attorneys general, would apologize for the letter, but not before Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the F.B.I. to discuss “strategies” for addressing such threats with local authorities.
In his campaign speeches, Youngkin connected the dots. “For months, we’ve seen chaos seep into our schools,” he said at a rally in late October. “A new instance each week until the unthinkable happened: Virginia — and America — awoke to the news that a young teenage girl had been sexually assaulted in her Loudoun County school. And worse, the school administrators covered it up, and Loudoun’s commonwealth attorney targeted the victim’s family.”
On Nov. 2, Youngkin, who had been trailing significantly in late-September polls, beat McAuliffe by two points. Within hours, Loudoun County — which McAuliffe won, but by 10 points less than Northam had in 2017 — went from scandal to strategy. The day after the election, Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, announced plans to introduce legislation establishing a “Parent’s Bill of Rights.” (It passed the House quickly but was never voted on in the Senate.) “We watched parents come to school-board meetings, craving to have input — a father getting arrested when his daughter was molested in a bathroom,” McCarthy told reporters.
This year, Ian Prior published a book titled “Parents of the World, Unite! How to Save Our Schools From the Left’s Radical Agenda,” which he billed as a sort of “Art of War” for parents’-rights activists. In Loudoun County, he believed, parents’-rights activists had done something rarer than succeeding at politics. They had succeeded in creating the conditions of politics. “It’s like we built this wave,” Prior told me. “And he” — Youngkin — “did a good job of getting on the surfboard and riding the wave.”
The political afterlife of the assaults was impossible to separate from the factual void that lay at the heart of the scandal. The ages of the assailant and both victims had kept the Loudoun County school district and sheriff’s office from releasing more than the bare minimum of information about either case. The families involved had remained silent and unidentified, with one exception: Scott and Jessica Smith. Their account had been the backbone of the Daily Wire story, and Scott Smith, who had tried unsuccessfully to land an interview with Tucker Carlson after his daughter’s assault and again after his arrest, was suddenly an in-demand presence on Fox News’s prime-time lineup.
“If we didn’t do this — stand up — no one would know what happened in Loudoun County,” Smith told me. He wasn’t wrong; in the absence of other sources, his story stood for more than a year as the story. He was the apparent sole source, for instance, of a key detail that had made the story incendiary in the first place: the claim that the boy who assaulted his daughter identified as gender fluid.
But on this score, Smith’s account had changed. At first, in the Daily Wire story, he told Rosiak: “The person that attacked our daughter is apparently bisexual and occasionally wears dresses because he likes them.” He went on: “So this kid is technically not what the school board was fighting about.” Within days, though, he said in a statement to the news media through his attorney: “The facts are that a male student claiming to be ‘gender fluid’ was permitted to enter the girls’ bathroom on May 28 and sexually assault our daughter.”
When I asked Smith how he knew any of this, he replied, “I didn’t really know at first, to be honest.” He said that evidence he saw much later during the investigation the school district conducted after the second assault, including a law-enforcement interview with the assailant, made clear that the boy identified as “pansexual.” (The boy’s mother told me she did not know where the description of her son as pansexual originated.) “I don’t really understand ‘pansexual,’ exactly,” Smith conceded. There was nothing in the evidence he had seen, he said, that gave him “any reason to believe that he wanted to necessarily have a sex change. I think he’s just a sexual deviant, you know, expressing his — I mean, I don’t know.”
Pansexuality, or attraction toward people regardless of their sexual or gender identity, is categorically different from gender fluidity. It is a sexual orientation, not a gender identity, and so a self-identified pansexual would not have been allowed into the girls’ bathroom under Policy 8040 — as Smith himself seemed to recognize in the Daily Wire interview.
Confusion on this point would persist in commentary on the case, some of it no doubt willful. But it also reflected the vast gulf between the vanguard of the discourse on gender and sexuality, which increasingly shaped school policies, and the popular awareness of it. Ziegler and other administrators and school-board members spoke fluently of “gender identity” and “gender expression.” But how many of the parents in the district could have defined the difference between the terms?
In late October, Smith’s daughter testified in the juvenile trial of her assailant. To the displeasure of the parents of both the accused boy and the victim, the judge made the unusual decision to open the trial to a handful of reporters — an indication of the sheer volume of media attention that now surrounded it.
The trial was the first time any of the three teenagers at the heart of the scandal spoke publicly about it. In court, the story the girl told was, if not wholly different from her father’s, more complicated. She had been involved with the boy, she said, and on May 28, they went to the bathroom together. It was only once they were in the stall together that the encounter turned nonconsensual.
It was, in her telling, clearly a sexual assault. But in the published accounts of the trial, no one who testified described the boy claiming to be anything in order to enter the bathroom, or suggested that he had required any artifice to do so. He was found guilty of two counts of forcible sodomy in the first incident and pleaded no contest to felony abduction and misdemeanor sexual battery in the second. (The boy did not testify in the trial, nor did the victim in the second assault.) He was sent to a residential treatment program.
The juvenile trial knocked down one of the central claims of the narrative of the scandal, but it did not address the other: that the school administrators had been sufficiently concerned about the question of the boy’s gender that they had buried the assault, perhaps in collusion with the school board. The Barts-Ziegler exchange about bathroom assaults remained, to the parents’-rights activists and their political allies, a clear indication of a cover-up.
Jason Miyares, the Republican candidate for attorney general in that fall’s election, had, like Youngkin, leaned into the Loudoun County outrage during his campaign and built relationships with the local parents’-rights activists’ over the summer. In July, he spoke at a fund-raiser for Prior’s group, Fight for Schools. After winning his race in November, he hired as his community liaison Patti Menders, the Loudoun County Republican Women’s Club president who had arranged the call between the Smiths and Ian Prior.
At a news conference two days after the election, a reporter asked Miyares: “Do you plan to investigate Loudoun County Public Schools, and the recent sexual assaults that have happened there?”
“Yes,” Miyares replied.
“What we saw was a school board that went woke, and I like to say, once you go woke, you go broke,” Miyares told Sean Hannity in January 2022, shortly after Youngkin signed an executive order authorizing a state investigation. “They’ve played politics with our children’s safety. And they passed a policy, and obviously, as you noted, there was a tragic violent sexual assault that happened.”
Miyares asked for a special grand jury to be impaneled that March. But when the special grand jury’s report was unsealed in December, the direct line from politics to tragedy that he had promised was nowhere to be found. The second assault “could have, and should have, been prevented,” the report argued, but it concluded that “there was not a coordinated cover-up” between administrators and school-board members.
Out of more than 100 pieces of evidence the special grand jury reviewed from the school district and the school board, the report presented only one suggesting that Policy 8040 might have factored into the handling of the case: the email from Kevin Lewis, the district’s chief operations officer, calling the virtual meeting on the afternoon of the first assault, in which he said the incident was related to the pending policy.
According to the report, both the school administration and the school board seemed to have done their best to conceal that email from the investigators. In their sworn testimony, administrators who attended the virtual meeting claimed to have forgotten anything of consequence that was said on the call. “We believe,” the report concluded bluntly, that “there was intentional institutional amnesia regarding this meeting.”
This was the crux of the case: Depending on one’s politics, the administrators’ behavior was a validation of the parents’-rights activists’ allegations, or run-of-the-mill bureaucratic defensiveness, or justifiable outmaneuvering of an inquiry that the school officials, by that point, had cause to view as a partisan fishing expedition. That all of these things looked the same from the outside explained much of how the politics of the county’s schools had grown so poisonous.
Shortly after the report’s release, Smith and Prior appeared together on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, “The Ingraham Angle.” Smith seemed deflated by the report, which “pretty much told us what we already knew,” he said. “There’s nobody held accountable by name.”
Prior was more sanguine. “I suspect we could see more down the road in the very near future,” he said. Sure enough, the following week, Miyares’s office unsealed three indictments against Scott Ziegler, the superintendent.
While the grand-jury report found no evidence of conspiracy, it presented an unsparing picture of the administration’s handling of the assaults. In both the first and, more inexplicable, the second case, warnings clearly raised by teachers had gone unheeded by the district administration, which had been “severely delinquent with its Title IX responsibilities,” the report argued, referring to the federal law that prevents sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. In short, the district had failed to protect the girls in its care. (District officials have said they were waiting for the sheriff’s office to complete its investigation before beginning Title IX proceedings.) By the time Ziegler’s indictments were unsealed, he had already been fired by the school board.
Still, Ziegler’s supporters and detractors both regarded the charges he faced as a tacit admission of defeat by the attorney general. All three were minor misdemeanors, and only one actually had to do with the sexual-assault cases: He was charged with “false publication” for his statement at the June 22 school-board meeting denying that any assaults had occurred in school bathrooms, an obscure offense that carried a maximum penalty of a $500 fine. (The grand jury indicted Wayde Byard, the school district’s spokesman, on a more serious felony charge of perjury, stemming from his testimony, but he was acquitted in June.)
“I’m not saying I’m not happy the grand jury came up with something — it is something,” Scott Smith told me.
“But there’s so much more,” Jessica Smith said. The Smiths say they plan to pursue a Title IX lawsuit against the district. Separately, the U.S. Department of Education opened a Title IX investigation into the district this spring. It was prompted by a complaint filed by Prior on behalf of the America First Legal Foundation, the former Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s organization.
Ziegler’s trial will begin this month. The Smiths’ daughter, who turns 18 this fall, plans to testify as a witness for the state. Doing so, the family knew, was likely to tear away what little privacy and anonymity she still maintained, but, Smith insisted, “she wants to talk.”
In April, I went to the Loudoun County Courthouse for a preliminary hearing in the case. Ziegler sat in a middle row of the courtroom, wearing small hoop earrings and black nail polish — flourishes that would later draw an irate headline from The Daily Wire. “I wore a suit and tie for years,” he told me, but “it was never my style.” Now that he was retired, “I can do what I want,” he said. “And,” he added with a smile, “it pisses people off.”
The Smiths sat across the aisle from Ziegler, neither party acknowledging the other. But as everyone waited for the judge to arrive, I was surprised to see the Smiths chatting amiably with Beth Barts — the great villain, besides Ziegler, of the parents’-rights crusade in Loudoun County.
Under pressure from the Fight for Schools recall campaign and, she told me, disgust at what she saw as her colleagues’ lack of concern over the second assault, Barts had resigned her post days after news of that assault broke. She seemed to be reconsidering, if not her politics, at least their fervency. She was now on cordial terms with Prior and, in the upcoming race for her old school-board seat, she told me, she was supporting a nonpartisan candidate who was challenging the Democratic incumbent who succeeded her.
Barts was not the only one who seemed to be rethinking political alliances. “I’ve turned on Youngkin,” Scott Smith told me in July. He said that he appreciated the governor’s support of parents’ rights but was bothered that he had not heard from the governor since the election. The same was true of Miyares, he said.
“People say, ‘The right used you,’” Smith went on. “I look at it more like a drunk one-night stand: I got what I wanted; they got what they wanted. Youngkin got elected. I got a special grand jury.”
Last September, Youngkin’s Department of Education released a draft model policy for transgender students, reversing the provisions that sparked most of the conservative backlash in Loudoun County and elsewhere. Under the new rules, formalized this summer, students are allowed to use only the bathrooms or locker rooms associated with their birth sex and must file legal documents to change their pronouns. Teachers have to notify parents of any mental-health discussions with their children at school. “Parents must have a role in their children’s lives, and as these important decisions are made, parents must be informed and included,” Youngkin told reporters in Leesburg that week.
Students at schools across the state walked out of class in protest, including nearly 1,400 students at Loudoun County high schools. “It felt like a big step in getting students to realize their potential to speak out,” said Caroline Northedge, at the time a high-school senior, who helped organize the protest in Loudoun County. “In Loudoun, the emphasis that was put on empowering parents was really frustrating,” she said. “The voices heard, the questions asked.”
Ian Prior now works with America First Legal, which in the 2022 election cycle spent millions of dollars in advertising and advocacy aimed at rolling back transgender rights. Since 2021, at least eight states have signed into law bills restricting bathroom use. I asked Prior why these bills succeeded when similar legislation had so resoundingly failed not even a decade ago. The stridency of transgender-rights advocates had probably hurt them, he thought. But he also thought the schools themselves had invited a backlash simply through the newly constant presence of gender in the classroom, as a subject of teaching materials and policies and paperwork. “It’s just not something they thought about until they started paying attention to what was being taught,” he said, “and how it was being taught.”
His theory is supported by public-opinion research, which in recent years has consistently shown a turn against transgender-friendly policies in bathrooms, sports and other areas. Last fall, a Public Religion Research Institute survey found an 18-point shift in favor of restrictive bathroom policies among political independents since 2016, and a 17-point shift among all Americans. This no doubt owed something to advocacy campaigns like America First Legal’s. But it also suggested a chronic problem of liberal social activism, which invests great energy in demanding that people think more about race, gender and sexuality but cannot control how they think about it.
Still, there was reason to be skeptical that this was quite the parents’ revolution that Prior and others claimed. Opposition to transgender rights has become a core tenet of the right’s own identity politics. The Public Religion Research Institute survey found that while independents have soured significantly on transgender policies, the largest swing by far has been among Republicans. A minority of 44 percent supported bathroom restrictions in 2016. By last fall, 74 percent did.
There is good cause to think that Youngkin’s victory, too, had more to do with the passions of the base than the alienation of suburban parents. An analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, mapping the surge in turnout in 2021 relative to the last governor’s election, found that the percentage increase was generally higher in rural, heavily Republican counties than in the big suburban counties that took center stage in the school fights. In other words, if the high-profile conflicts over suburban school districts like Loudoun County had driven the surge in interest in the election, that surge was most pronounced among voters who did not have children in those schools.
In another postelection study, TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, matched Virginia’s 2021 election data to individual voters’ demographic information. The surge in turnout among voters ages 50 and older accounted for two and a half times as many new ballots as the increase among voters between ages 30 and 49, who were more likely to have children in school. When Fight for Schools was first canvassing for its recall effort, “there were a lot of people we talked to who said, ‘I don’t have kids in the school, but I have grandkids,’” Prior told me. “They were the easiest ones to get to sign petitions.”
In this sense, what happened in Loudoun County was not such a new or unusual story. Political scientists have observed a growing disconnect between who has a direct stake in schools and who votes in the elections that shape them. School-board-election voters tend to be older than parents of school-age children. They are also overwhelmingly white, even as students of color have come to outnumber white students nationally.
“Sometimes their interests are aligned with the kids’,” said Vladimir Kogan, a political scientist at Ohio State University who studies school-district politics. “Sometimes they’re not.” The combatants in those battles — waged by the left and the right over mascots and textbooks, sports teams and bathrooms — were often sincere in their intentions, Kogan was quick to point out. “They are convinced that what they’re doing is really good for kids,” he said. “These are really complicated political issues, on which reasonable people can disagree.” But, he said, those fights did implicitly raise a question: “Do we care about learning, or do we care about these symbolic issues that get voters fired up?”
This was more of a zero-sum question than the combatants might wish to admit. A meeting that a school board spent debating a problematic mascot was a meeting that it did not spend on a new learning technology program. A million-dollar settlement over a textbook lawsuit was a million dollars not going to classroom instruction. The school board seats lost, superintendents fired or driven out, exhausted teacher retirements — all of that churn came at a cost, too. “I think a lot of the time,” Kogan said, “adult actors want to wish away those trade-offs.”
Last year, Kogan released the early results of a study trying to quantify what students might have lost in those trade-offs. Looking at more than 500 school districts that weathered local culture-war conflicts between 2010 and 2018, he found a small but statistically robust decline in student math scores compared with districts that had not. Although his data were drawn from earlier controversies, he called the phenomenon the “Loudoun County effect” — a nod to the most recent cautionary tale.
“Well-intentioned advocacy,” he said, “sometimes has unintended consequences.”
Matt Eich is a photographer in Virginia working on long-form projects related to memory, family, community and America. He teaches at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University.
Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, based in Cleveland, have collaborated on dioramas and miniatures for more than 20 years.