On May 24, a Loudoun County Public Schools employee was summoned to the high school office, where the supervisor delivered what the student reporter for LoudounPatch describes as an “extremely disturbing and yet baffling” email. The supervisor had received an Open Records request from a student reporter for LoudounPatch, who had asked the schools to release information pertaining to sexual assault at the high school.
In her response, the supervisor included a redacted list of incidents that fit each category (“rape,” “sexual assault,” “torture,” “circling,” “racial/tribalism,” “prostitution,” “nig-fu-mu”), but the supervisor’s definition of sexual assault was as wide as it was vague: “Sexual assault is sexual intercourse or any penetration with an object — from any perversion, attack, etc.”
But it gets worse. After all, under the law, this sort of omission is considered willful falsification. In Loudoun County Circuit Court, the director of communications for Loudoun County Public Schools and the county schools’ attorney have argued, while invoking the narrow, limited definition of sexual assault that they themselves provide on their school site sites: “Although the subject of this request is a high school, this is a case about a Columbia Pike (the property) on which the public schools operate and for which the county has sole financial responsibility.”
It may be that the school system was correct in not releasing the details of the sexual assaults, because what the student reporter was seeking was way too specific. After all, if a student had actually been assaulted, in her own words, by a teacher or student, it’s almost impossible to infer that the plaintiff was assaulted at a school building, and thus could not reasonably expect to receive an ounce of protection from the prosecution if the school employees were accused of attacking her. Moreover, of course, a defendant is responsible not just for committing the crime, but for hiding his identity from the prosecution.
But at some point, the narrow definition the school system uses to describe sexual assault becomes untenable, and we’ve seen this kind of thing happen time and time again. In 2009, at least four men and a woman were convicted of having sex with a student after District Attorney Dan Virginia found that a rigid set of legal definitions had left little room for interpretation. After that verdict, a disturbing discussion began to unfold about how a seemingly rigid definition of statutory rape had been overridden by social attitudes — and the laws themselves — with which prosecutors were “incapable of explaining,” according to a 2012 report from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
(The case made headlines again in 2016, when the Loudoun sheriff’s department brought a new sex assault case against a local teacher, while saying they were “not satisfied” with the 2009 prosecution.)
In the confusion of words, over what defines sex assault in our society, we forget to protect people against the harm that sex may cause them. Again, it’s an open question whether or not the victim in the case whose requests for details were ignored was subjected to any harm, but one clear implication from the lawsuit is that the knowledge that at least one of those defendants may have raped a student — an allegation which is arguably well-founded — has affected the way the student is treated by other staff at her school, and in turn, affected her performance in school. The allegations being made are horrifying, but unless the question of sexual assault is defined with such certainty that it really does no longer matter what setting it occurs within, we’re only going to perpetuate more confusion in ways that will do more damage to people than good.