The political exploitation of sexual assault in Virginia high schools

Last May, a boy sexually assaulted a girl in a bathroom at Stone Bridge High School in Loudoun County, Virginia. The teen was convicted of the assault this week in a Virginia juvenile court. The incident, however, was grossly mishandled by Loudoun County schools. While the charges against the boy were pending, he was permitted to transfer to another county high school. The same boy is now accused of a sexual assault at Broad Run High School on October 6. The boy allegedly forced a girl into an empty classroom and "inappropriately touched her." The boy will be tried in that case next month. 

Those facts are more than enough to justify outrage, protest, and concern among Loudoun County, parents, students, and the broader community. Instead, the reality of the case has been manipulated and exploited for political purposes.

The sexual assault in the Stone Bridge High bathroom has been seized on by right-wing forces as proof of the dangers of trans-inclusive bathroom policies in schools. That false narrative relies on misrepresenting what actually happened. 

The assault was reported by Luke Rosiak in The Daily Wire, a right-wing publication that is notoriously anti-trans. Rosiak framed the issue around access to bathrooms by trans students, including this quote from Scott Smith, the father of the victim:

We’re not into this children transgender stuff. The person that attacked our daughter is apparently bisexual and occasionally wears dresses because he likes them. So this kid is technically not what the school board was fighting about. The point is kids are using it as an advantage to get into the bathrooms.

Prior to going public about the assault against his daughter, Smith attended a June 22 Loudoun County school board meeting. The meeting addressed the rights of trans students, including access to restrooms that reflect their "consistently asserted gender identity." 

During the meeting, Loudoun County superintendent Scott Ziegler falsely claimed that "we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms." Ziegler's statement reflected an overall carelessness about the May sexual assault at Stone Bridge High School. 

That evening, Smith got into a heated argument with another parent, who supported the trans-inclusive policy. He called her a "bitch" and resisted an officer who was trying to break up the confrontation. Smith was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He was later convicted of those charges.

The two sexual assaults, however, had nothing to do with policies related to trans rights and bathrooms. The boy who committed the assault was not trans. The incident occurred months before Loudoun County instituted a trans-inclusive bathroom policy. And, contrary to the trope, the assault did not involve anyone sneaking into a restroom to catch a victim unaware. Like so many sexual assaults, the victim knew her assailant and agreed to meet him in the bathroom. 

These facts, however, have not prevented right-wing media and politicians from mischaracterizing the story to use it as a cudgel in the culture war.

Right-wing media exploits sexual assault

Right-wing media outlets have been using this case to argue that trans-inclusive bathrooms create new dangers. Numerous articles have misidentified the boy as “transgender.” 

On October 12, Fox News Host Laura Ingraham had Smith on The Ingraham Angle and tweeted that the assault was “allegedly by a trans boy.” 

This week, the Christian Broadcasting Network also reported that “a transgender teen was [found] guilty of sexually assaulting a female classmate.” 

Other outlets have also falsely stated that the assault was possible because of a trans-inclusive bathroom policy that “allows students to use facilities that align with their gender identity.” However, there was no policy in place at the time of the assault. The assault took place on May 28, and the school board did not pass the trans-inclusive bathroom policy until August 11

The Daily Mail reported that “the boy took advantage of the school’s trans policies to get into the girls’ bathroom and assault her.” Following the same narrative, an op-ed in the Washington Times reported that Smith refused to leave the school board meeting in June was because his daughter had “allegedly been raped” by a boy "who was “allowed into the girl’s room because of the idiotic transgender mandate.” The New York Post also reported that the boy “took advantage of transgender rules to ‘get into the bathrooms.’"

The Daily Signal, published by conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, also pushed this false narrative. "Assaults like these are the natural result of transgender bathroom policies, which allow boys to freely enter girls’ spaces and erode boundaries," the Daily Signal reported, quoting right-wing activist Lauren Adams.

Republican politicians exploit sexual assault

In recent weeks, Republican legislators have used these incidents for political gain, promoting false narratives around trans-inclusive facilities. 

On October 20, during a hearing for judicial nominee Holly Thomas, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) began the session with an account of the Loudoun sexual assault case and asked Thomas if she had concerns about the safety of girls in school bathrooms. Thomas was previously the lead lawyer on a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s anti-trans “bathroom bill.”

“Last week, we learned that the Loudoun County school board in Virginia covered up the fact that a male wearing a skirt had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl in the girl’s bathroom at the school,” Grassley said. “In light of the troubling news about Loudoun County, do you still believe that concerns about safety and privacy, especially for young girls, in school bathrooms are [not] valid?”

Thomas, who is currently a judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court and was nominated for a judicial seat in California, stated that she was not familiar with the case. Yet, Grassley continued to press her about the safety of trans-inclusive school bathrooms. 

And Grassley wasn’t the only Republican Senator to bring up this sexual assault case –– other Senate Republicans spotlighted the Loudoun case in what appeared to be a coordinated effort. Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) asked Thomas if she believed “there is no evidence of violence or crime in restrooms by allowing biological males to use biological females’ restrooms.”

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said that her constituents were unsettled by Thomas’ nomination because of “what [she has] said about the transgender rights and the assault that happened in Loudoun County.”

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) also brought up a brief by Thomas related to the safety of trans-inclusive bathrooms and asked if she was “aware of the recent incident that’s come to light in the Loudoun County district.” 

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) questioned if Thomas was lying about not being familiar with the Loudoun sexual assault case. “You testified to this committee that you were not aware of what happened in Loudoun County until this morning,” Cruz said. “I find that remarkable for someone who has spent years as one of the leading activists for allowing transgender biological men to use girls’ restrooms and women’s restrooms.”

Meanwhile, in Virginia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is capitalizing on the outrage surrounding the case. "For months, we've seen chaos in our schools," Youngkin said in a campaign speech earlier this month. 

In a nod to anti-trans activists, he cast the sexual assaults as the result of liberal ideology. "The present chaos in our schools lays squarely at the feet... of George Soros-backed allies," Youngkin said. "These allies that are in the left, liberal, progressive movement." Youngkin did not directly link the assault to trans issues, but he didn't need to. That work was done by the right-wing media and other politicians.

As Popular Information has previously reported, Youngkin has made the politicization of school boards a key component of his political strategy.