Virginia K-12 educators report 12,175 sex assaults on campuses over a five-year period. The state collects the data, but what actions do schools take?

By Chris Halsne and Haley Murphy

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PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY, Va. — Grace endured two months of sexual harassment at school before she found the courage to tell her parents. A boy kept staring at Grace and making gross comments while masturbating beneath his jacket at the desk adjacent to hers.

After hearing from her concerned father, the principal suspended the boy for a few days and rearranged Grace’s class schedule to keep the students in separate classrooms. Although the district had dutifully reported the initial sexual harassment to the state’s disciplinary database, when Grace moved to high school, nobody told the new principal of the previous harassment. She was again placed in the same class as her tormentor.

According to internal investigative reports from the district, the boy’s behavior elevated to include other female students as well. One of Grace’s fourth period classmates reported the boy “was staring at me and {Grace} and he had his jacket over him and you could see that he was masturbating. There have been multiple times.”

One girl texted another during one of these in-class masturbation sessions: “Im scared.” Another typed, “i’m disgusted and feel uncomfortableeeee.”

Grace’s father agreed to share details of his daughter’s encounters but asked that IRW protect their identities because of safety concerns. Grace is her middle name.

“Everything we did to keep her safe. So frustrating. Nobody was told,” the father said. “Teachers didn’t know.”

Grace’s case is but one of at least 4,279 unwelcome, on-campus sexual harassment incidents reported to the state’s Department of Education in the past five years. And yet that number is but a subset of all sex assault complaints filed by students in Virginia. Victims’ families, attorneys, school administrators, state regulators, domestic violence advocates and prosecutors who spoke with IRW said sex assault cases that find their way into the news are but a fraction of what’s happening inside hallways, stairwells and buses.

Complaints filed but districts struggle to act

Prince George County sits less than a half-hour’s bus ride south of Richmond, the state capital. Serving families stationed at nearby Fort Lee, one of the biggest Army training centers in the country, the district claims enrollment of about 6,000 students, 40% of whom qualify for free lunch. The school markets itself as “nestled between the natural splendor of both the famed Blue Ridge Mountains and the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean.”

IRW reviewed Prince George school district discipline records, emails between school officials, and a federal Title IX report to corroborate Grace’s story. It’s clear police were never called to assist, something Grace’s father remains conflicted about.

“My daughter is a victim,” he said. “I was livid they were handling a case of this level without police or juvenile victim’s advocates.” However, he admitted, “I’m a realist. I don’t think putting a criminal charge on a 13-, 14-year-old kid makes sense in most cases. They said they would handle it. I swear to God.”

His frustration is centered on the lack of communication between the middle school and high school.

Now he says he wants the school to be held accountable and the boy to be seen as the aggressor. “He’s a predator,” he said. “He obviously has a problem.”

On the phone with IRW, the father’s voice softened, trailed off, when he talked about what his daughter continues to go through day after day.

“She occasionally sees him, passing in the hallways. She tells me she looks down, and it makes her feel a certain way,” the father said. “It’s frustrating they put them back in the same environment.”

One of the reasons that occurred is district investigators ruled that “these actions are a definite and serious violation of Prince George County Student Code of Conduct as well as found to be objectively offensive and unwelcome behavior to a reasonable person. There is, however, no evidence that [name of perpetrator]’s conduct effectively denied [name of student victim] equal access to Prince George County’s program of studies.”

This kind of ruling aided in preventing the district from being found “guilty” of Department of Education Title IX violations, which can financially punish schools for failing to adequately address sexual harassment.

A spokesperson for the Prince George school district declined to comment on Grace’s case or speak with IRW about how it investigates disciplinary incidents.

IRW Investigation

A lengthy investigation conducted by journalists at the Investigative Reporting Workshop found that Grace’s experiences are more common than many parents realize.

Using open-record laws, IRW requested and analyzed data submitted by districts to the Virginia Department of Education’s Discipline, Crime and Violence Data reporting system.

The database contains statistical information about violent offenses committed on school property, including weapons, fights, drugs, theft and sex assault. The Virginia Legislature mandates that the education department collect information about why students are suspended or expelled. The information is used to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act and identify persistently dangerous schools.

IRW focused on reported “sex assaults” starting with the 2015-2016 school year and ending with the pandemic-shortened 2019-2020 school year. The database uses the term sex assault to encompass all reports of criminal sexual assault and sexual harassment.

During those five years, Virginia school districts reported more than 12,175 incidents of sex assault that occurred on K-12 educational campuses. The level of seriousness ranges from gender-based sexual harassment to first-degree rape.

In addition to the 4,200-plus sexual harassment complaints, such as the ones Grace endured, 5,554 incidents are labeled as “offensive sexual touching” of a student. The Virginia Department of Education defines those cases as “improper physical contact against a student that is offensive, undesirable, and/or unwanted as determined by the victim.” A small percentage of complaints each year also reflect other allegations, including students harassing or inappropriately touching school faculty or staff. None of the incidents in these two categories require principals to notify local law enforcement.

However, Virginia statute does mandate that school districts report certain sexual assaults to police.

An IRW review of these files found at least 1,553 additional incidents that were serious enough to warrant criminal investigations.

These include, but were not limited to, 1,359 sexual offenses without force, 163 cases of sexual battery against a student, 22 cases of aggravated sexual battery against students by staff, and nine cases of student forcible rape.

And data shows that the total number of in-school sex assault complaints keeps rising. During the 2015-2016 school year, districts reported 2,191 cases.

  • In 2016-2017: Up 12 percent, to 2,464
  • In 2017-2018: Up 8 percent, to 2,656
  • In 2018-2019: Up 4 percent, to 2,763

Reported incidents dropped in 2019-2020 to 2,101 incidents. But the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home in March of that year, shortening the reporting cycle.

[Update as of Dec. 12: The Loudoun County Schools superintendent has been fired, and he and the schools spokesman have been indicted.]

Assaults in Loudoun County draw national attention to rape in school

Last year, the Loudoun County school district found itself in the national spotlight after a 15-year-old boy wearing a skirt entered the girls’ bathroom and assaulted another student. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office subsequently confirmed that the same perpetrator had assaulted a second female student after being transferred to a different school. A judge sentenced the teenager to serve three years in a secure residential treatment facility after finding him guilty of sexual battery, abduction and two counts of sodomy. When he turns 18, he will remain on probation but not be required to register as a sex offender. Both incidents were classified as rape by local prosecutors.

Part of the controversy surrounding those incidents focused on a new school board transgender policy that stated, “students should be allowed to use the [bathroom] facility that corresponds to their gender identity.” It remains unclear whether the teen rapist knowingly took advantage of that policy to enter the girl’s bathroom to commit the first assault.

How the Loudoun County school district handled the incidents played a part in the fall 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.

After his victory, Youngkin tasked Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares with investigating the Loudoun County school district and its superintendent. An order from the Virginia Supreme Court in early September affirmed the attorney general’s right to call a grand jury to investigate the district’s handling of sexual assault cases.

On Dec. 2, the grand jury released a report slamming the school district for its “stunning lack of openness, transparency, and accountability.”

The attorney general’s office declined to have an on-the-record conversation with IRW. Loudoun County school officials did not respond. The school board recently revised its discipline policy to give administrators greater latitude to suspend those accused of crimes. The policy allows principals to continue educating troubled students in person but separate from the general student population. It also sets up procedures to have the suspended student continue studies from home or virtually.

The pair of school rapes sparked this IRW investigation into how often students report sexual assaults in Loudoun County and statewide. IRW also started asking questions about how school district leaders and police investigate all levels of sexual assault on campus.

Since 2015, Loudoun County has filed at least 137 sex assault and harassment reports to the Virginia Department of Education’s school discipline database. To find out how many of those incidents were also reported to the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office as potential crimes, IRW filed multiple open-records requests.

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office declined to provide the majority of its school assault incident narratives, citing laws that protect public viewing of juvenile criminal records. However, sheriff’s personnel agreed to tell IRW how many times detectives opened criminal investigations where an alleged sex crime occurred at school, on school grounds, or on school transportation in the past five years. That number is 38.

Details from those 38 allegations are largely unavailable due to privacy laws, but IRW reviewed two redacted reports. They included a 2017 allegation of sexual-assault-related hazing of an athlete and a case involving an unsubstantiated complaint of a teacher’s inappropriately touching a special-needs student.

Sex assaults at school ‘happen all the time’

In a locker room at Culpeper Public High School in Culpeper County in 2015, veteran football players had a hazing ritual during which they pinned ninth and 10th grade male students face down on the floor. The stronger, older boys would hold the younger players to the floor and gyrate up and down in “simulated rape” in what one parent told administrators were “just boys being boys.”

Local prosecutors did not file charges against any of the 12 alleged perpetrators. Instead, the district called the assaults “detrimental to the learning environment” and handed out nine short-term suspensions.

Russell Houck, the executive director of student services for Culpeper County Public Schools, said the district was required to report the incidents to the Virginia Department of Education under the Discipline, Crime and Violence Data reporting system.

Russell Houck, the executive director of student services for Culpeper County Public Schools (Photo via LinkedIn)

In an interview with IRW, Houck said he was frustrated that school districts such as his don’t have the budget to make a significant impact on reducing the volume of incidents.

“These things happen all the time,” said Houck. “We’ve had to ‘layer’ our sexual offenses. Some we call minor and some we call major.”

The data sets the state receives from districts are “all about interpretation,” Houck said. “When you go into this analysis, be well-aware of the great variations that exist. That’s not the way it should be, but there are disparities in school discipline.”

Culpeper County reported 208 sex assaults that involved student behaviors on school property since 2015. That’s the highest ratio in the state relative to its student population at about 2.4% combined over five years. Districts with higher enrollments may have more reported incidents, but when the number of students is factored in as a comparison, the rankings become clearer. A five-year breakdown of districts per approximated student population found these four school districts proportionally filed the next highest number of sex assault reports in Virginia:

  • Richmond City: 585 reported sex assaults/25,211 enrolled students
  • Henry County: 167 reported sex assaults/7,381 enrolled students
  • Newport News City: 598 reported sex assaults/28,650 enrolled students
  • Virginia Beach City: 1,048 reported sex assaults/63,675 enrolled students

Houck told IRW that some districts struggle to categorize and accurately report the wide variety of sexual assault and harassment cases. The education department has at least 12 reporting categories that might fit different levels of harassment and assault between students. For example, the state education department defines sexual harassment (coded SX0) to include physical conduct of a sexual nature, but some districts submit reports of inappropriate contact in the category of offensive sexual touching of a student (coded as SX2).

“Beware of the data. It’s not going to really give you a full picture of the level of sexual harassment and sexual behaviors in our schools,” said Houck. “From school to school and sometimes from administrators within the school, it depends [on] who is investigating.”

In Henrico County, District Attorney Shannon Taylor told IRW that most sex assaults at school involve juveniles abusing other juveniles. Educators abusing students does happen, but statistically, adult-on-child crimes make up less than 2% of the Virginia Department of Education’s discipline and crime reporting database.

Shannon Taylor, Henrico County District Attorney (Photo via campaign website)

Taylor provided context regarding which sex crimes are reported to law enforcement and which are contained solely within school disciplinary codes, although, because of privacy laws, Taylor said she could speak with IRW only in generalities.

“One of the things we see a lot of is the exchanging of [graphic] photographs,” she said. “And some young people take that to the next level with what we call sex-tortion: ‘If you don’t pay me 100 bucks, I’ll put this out there … release this picture to the whole school,’” Taylor said. “While that behavior does not involve physical touching, it is behavior we find very concerning.”

She said forcible rape in a school setting is rare. More common are crimes involving students exposing themselves, unwanted sexual conduct in bathrooms, touching or grabbing inappropriately, and making vile, threatening comments.

Taylor reiterated, “Absolutely. That does happen between these kids during school hours.”

The Henrico County school district reported 537 sex assault incidents since the 2016 school year. Taylor declined to identify how many of those allegations made their way to law enforcement or to criminal prosecution.

Taylor said the key to helping victims (and stopping a repeat juvenile offender) is communication among school leaders, police, prosecutors and social services, especially since some research indicates child predators are often also sex crime victims.

“Why is a child offending on another child? We want to get that offender-child the appropriate help,” she said.

She added: “We always have a full commitment to the victims of these cases. 100% commitment to the victims.”

Fairfax finds a different way

Debra Miller finds comfort in the uncomfortable.

As Youth Education and Outreach Specialist for the Fairfax County Department of Family Services, part of her job is visiting high schools and talking about dating violence, toxic relationships, and sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

Debra Miller, Youth Education and Outreach Specialist for the Fairfax County Department of Family Services (Photo via LinkedIn)

The HYPE project — Healthy Youth Prevention Education — is not part of mandatory sex education, but rather an eight-part prevention program funded by the county’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Services.

“We know how common abuse is. Often, we hear someone say, ‘I didn’t know that was abuse,’ or ‘I didn’t think someone would believe me,’ or ‘I didn’t want to feel ashamed because this is my fault,’ ” Miller told IRW in a recent interview. “It can be a lot harder for teenagers to come forward.”

Because of a hesitancy to report abuse against a peer, Miller believes the approximately 12,000 cases of sexual assault and harassment reported to the Virginia Department of Education in five years is a conservative figure.

Although now more than three years old, data collected by the federal Department of Education supports that assertion. Nearly 100,000 schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico responded to a voluntary survey regarding sexual assault. During the 2017-2018 school year, districts reported 13,114 sexual assaults and 685 rapes or attempted rapes. Sexual assault was defined as threatened rape, fondling, indecent liberties or child molestation. Two years earlier, schools reported approximately 9,600 sexual assault-related incidents — a 36% increase between the 2015 and 2018 surveys. The Department of Education has not released additional data since.

But a state-by-state review of the latest detailed data raises questions about the survey’s accuracy.

Virginia, for example, reported 18 rapes and 494 sexual assaults in the 2017-2018 school year. That is a relatively accurate reflection of the state’s own reporting system numbers. On the other end of the spectrum, Alaska reported zero rapes and five sexual assaults, and the District of Columbia school district reported zero rapes and nine sexual assaults.

IRW called and sent an email to DCPS inquiring why that reported number was disproportionately low. A DCSP spokesperson suggested IRW ask for assistance from the Deputy Mayor of Education Office or the Office of the State Superintendent for Education. The superintendent’s office initially responded that it would look into the matter but failed to provide any answers.

“There are so many reasons that something can go unreported,” Miller, the Fairfax County outreach specialist, said. “Maybe they don’t know it’s abusive. Maybe it’s fear. What will my partner do to me if I tell somebody? Or a fear parents or teachers won’t believe me,” she said. “Because they are not in control of their lives — they have to live under a parent or guardian. They are under the age of 18.”

During her school visits, Miller said students usually ask lots of questions. She said it’s most important that she carefully listen, believe them and provide access to Fairfax County safety resources.

“There may be a lot of concern of ‘what if I get in trouble?’ ‘I am not allowed to date, so coming forward about dating violence, I will be in huge trouble because I’m not supposed to date.’ Or ‘I’m not supposed to be having sex, so I can’t tell them I am experiencing sexual assault.’ There are so many nuanced reasons,” Miller told IRW.

The Fairfax County school district reported 939 incidents of sex assaults since 2016. At nearly 180,000 students, it’s one of the largest student populations in Virginia and has one of the better student-to-incident ratios, around one-fifth of Culpeper County’s.

Miller said there is no way to know if the county’s HYPE program has had a positive statistical impact on reported school violence, but she hopes so.

“Education is so important. Uncomfortable topics are uncomfortable for a reason. Because they are in the shadows, or they are not talked about, or we don’t want to face our teens dating or having sex or coming to terms with their own sexuality,” Miller said.

“We don’t want to think about it, but that’s our own discomfort,” she said. “That does not help them lead productive lives.”

School violence reporting system updated to focus on equity, alternatives to punishment

In 2019, the Virginia Board of Education voted to change the behavioral data collection system to “focus on ensuring equity and establishing prevention and intervention in a tiered system of supports” including “resources for developing alternatives to suspension.”

At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, the Virginia Department of Education archived and replaced the Discipline, Crime and Violence Data reporting system. Principals are being trained to use a new program, retitled the Student Behavior and Administrative Response Collection, or SBAR. The new discipline collection system has been in place for a full school year. IRW recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to review and compare the two systems. VDOE’s response indicted it had not yet created any general reports for the revamped SBAR data.

In an email last summer to IRW, Charles Pyle, the education department’s director of communications, indicated that this new data collection will be more robust and nuanced.

For example, “SBAR has more behavior codes as related to inappropriate sexual behavior and allows for greater differentiation on the severity of behaviors, which lends itself to more appropriate intervention,” Pyle wrote.

He added, “The behavior descriptors (codes) describe what students do, avoid criminal language, and avoid subjective language.”

But Pyle declined IRW’s request for an on-the-record interview to explain, among other things, how that new alternative punishment focus might affect victims of school crime.

Grace’s father wonders why the Virginia Department of Education spends time and tax money collecting thousands of sex assault reports, yet has not come up with a solution to reduce the number of victims.

For him, the way potential sex crimes are investigated and reported to authorities matters. He still has serious questions about why school staffers were the ones doing the investigation instead of detectives trained in dealing with juvenile victims and perpetrators.

“The process took three months,” he said. “The school made my daughter tell the story over and over. They pulled her out of class. It’s so uncomfortable having her repeat words like penis and masturbation,” the father told IRW. “They really fell short.”

He added, “Families like ours? We are suffering under these policies. Everything seems to protect the school district from looking bad.”