The U.S. Supreme Court (via Geoff Livingston/Flickr)

(Updated on 1/14/2022 at 4:30 p.m.) The Fairfax County School Board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a former student’s sexual assault lawsuit, a move that could reshape how the federal law against sexual violence in schools is interpreted.

A petition filed by the school board on Dec. 30 argues that public school systems can’t be held liable for sexual harassment and assault unless officials knew an assault took place and could have prevented it.

The lawsuit was initiated in May 2018 by a former Oakton High School student, identified as Jane Doe, who says Fairfax County Public Schools mishandled her report of being sexually assaulted by another student on a school band trip in 2017.

The school board is now seeking to reverse an appeals court’s order of a new trial in the case.

“Funding recipients are rightly held liable when their own conduct intentionally causes harassment,” the petition says. “But Title IX liability rightfully does not, under this Court’s precedents, extend to situations where a recipient does not actually know of harassment or when its actions cause no harassment.”

Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in public education programs and activities. Doe’s lawsuit argues that FCPS violated the law by ignoring reports of her assault, discouraging her from taking legal action, and failing to ensure her safety.

A U.S. District Court jury found in August 2019 that a sexual assault took place and harmed Doe’s educational experience, but the school board couldn’t be held liable under Title IX, because officials didn’t have “actual knowledge” that the assault had occurred.

Jury members’ reported confusion over the term “actual knowledge” — whether school officials need direct evidence of an assault or just a report of one — led Public Justice, the nonprofit representing Jane Doe, to appeal the case to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

A three-judge panel ruled in June that a sexual assault report meets the legal standard and ordered a retrial.

However, FCPS asked the appeals court to stay its order for a new trial in September, signaling that it planned to petition the Supreme Court.

In a statement to FFXnow, FCPS maintained that the school board “could not have foreseen the assault, did not cause it, and could not have prevented it”:

Fairfax County Public Schools is committed to upholding Title IX and firmly believes that every student deserves an education free from harassment or discrimination. The decision to pursue this legal avenue has nothing to do with challenging this critical civil rights law.

The question in this case is only about whether Congress intended America’s public schools, and the teachers that work in them, to be held financially responsible for student-on-student misconduct that they had no way to foresee and did not cause.  We believe the law should be applied the same way nationwide, and only the Supreme Court has the power to restore that uniformity.

To fail to challenge the Fourth Circuit’s ruling would be to let down public school educators the length and breadth of the U.S., and especially in Virginia, during a time when they need support more than ever. In addition, to roll over in the face of costly and unfair lawsuits would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars and would set a worrying precedent for school divisions facing similar lawsuits now and in the future.

However, Public Justice says the school board’s position is at odds with its claims to support students’ safety and civil rights, essentially suggesting that schools can only be held liable for sexual violence if it reoccurs.

“[FCPS] has now asked the Supreme Court to gut crucial protections for Jane Doe, for Fairfax students, and for young survivors across the country, pushing a misinterpretation of Title IX that the U.S. Department of Justice has called ‘absurd,'” Public Justice staff attorney Alexandra Brodsky said by email. “We are confident, though, that the Court will deny the cert petition and Jane will have the chance to be heard by a jury.”

Brodsky added that Doe isn’t seeking to hold FCPS responsible for the assault itself, but rather, for how it responded to her report.

Public Justice has not filed a response to the school board’s petition yet. The Supreme Court docket shows that a motion to extend the deadline for a response to April 8 was granted on Tuesday (Jan. 11).

Shatter the Silence Fairfax County Public Schools, a nonprofit that says it was founded by survivors, parents, and FCPS students, has launched a petition demanding that the school board drop its appeal.

“We the citizens demand that FCPS withdraw the baseless appeal in Doe v. Fairfax County School Board and appropriately respond to sexual assault in school,” the petition says. “Since FCPS continues its culture of cover-up and indifference, we ask the Virginia Attorney General and the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into FCPS and bring accountability once and for all.”

Photo via Geoff Livingston/Flickr

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A retired priest who headed the Catholic Diocese of Arlington’s Office of Child Protection and Safety for seven years has been indicted for allegedly sexually abusing a boy in Fairfax County two decades ago.

Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General announced this morning (Tuesday) that a grand jury handed down two felony charges against Terry Specht, 69, of Donegal, Pennsylvania on Dec. 20.

The Fairfax County Circuit Court grand jury charged Specht with aggravated sexual battery of a child under the age of 13 and sexual abuse of a child under the age of 18 with whom he had a custodial or supervisory relationship.

According to the indictments, the abuse occurred between March 1 and Sept. 30, 2000 and involved Specht “intentionally touching…intimate parts or material covering such intimate parts” of a victim identified as G.H., who was a minor at the time.

Specht served as a priest in the Diocese of Arlington from 1996 to 2012, including as director of its Office of Child Protection from 2004 to 2011.

The Diocese of Arlington says it first received an allegation of sexual abuse against Specht in 2012. The allegation was reported to law enforcement, and Specht was placed on administrative leave while the diocese’s review board conducted an investigation.

According to a report by The Washington Post at the time, the investigation concerned abuse of a teen boy that occurred in the late 1990s while Specht was parochial vicar at the Saint Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church in Fairfax.

“The Review Board found the allegation to be inconclusive, and law enforcement never brought charges related to the 2012 allegation,” Diocese media relations director Amber Rosebloom told FFXnow in a statement, noting that Specht was granted a request for medical retirement in 2012 and has not served in priestly ministry since.

According to the Diocese, Specht’s role in its Office of Child Protection was as a policy administrator and instructor, and he was not involved in the 2012 investigation or in assigning priests. A subsequent third-party review of the office’s policies, staff, and procedures did not find any issues.

“As a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Father Specht underwent a criminal background check and completed VIRTUS safe-environment training,” the Diocese said. “He also underwent recurring background checks every five years, consistent with diocesan policy.”

The Diocese says it reported a second, separate allegation of abuse that it received in 2019 to police and has shared information and files related to both allegations with Attorney General Mark Herring’s office.

Specht is the third person to face charges as part of an ongoing, statewide investigation of clergy-related sexual abuse, according to the attorney general’s office.

“Children should always feel comfortable around religious leaders in their life, without fear that they could somehow hurt them,” Herring said in a statement. “Our joint investigation with the Virginia State Police into potential clergy abuse in Virginia remains ongoing, and I am proud of the work that we have done so far.”

Specht’s case is scheduled to go to trial in October 2022.

Herring encouraged Virginians who might have information about this case or any other instance of clergy abuse to speak up. His office launched a clergy abuse hotline in 2018 that remains available 24/7 at 1-833-454-9064 and www.VirginiaClergyHotline.com.

“No matter how long ago the incident occurred, we will take it seriously and make sure that you get the help and support you deserve,” he said.

The Diocese of Arlington similarly encouraged people with information about Specht or other incidents of misconduct or abuse to contact the Fairfax County Police Department at 703-691-2131 or its victim assistance coordinator at 703-841-2530.

“The Diocese of Arlington has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse and continues to be fully committed to training our clergy, staff and volunteers to identify and report suspected instances of abuse,” Rosebloom said. “No one with a credible accusation of abuse of minors is serving in the Diocese.”

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Fairfax County Public Safety Headquarters (via FCPD)

A woman alleges that Fairfax County police not only benefited from a sex trafficking ring that victimized her for years but also harmed efforts trying to stop it.

She is suing several former Fairfax County officers, including former Chief Ed Roessler, as well as the county itself. The lawsuit claims the woman — identified as a mother with the pseudonym Jane Doe — was forced to have sex with multiple men per day as part of a trafficking operation exposed in 2018 by an FBI investigation.

“Defendants also conspired to cover up the fact that Fairfax County police officers were actively participating in, and benefiting sexually if not financially from, the work of a local sex trafficking ring,” the lawsuit said.

The Fairfax County Police Department directed FFXnow to the county’s public affairs office, which declined to comment.

The suit alleged that two supervisory officers “actively facilitated” a sex trafficking ring by “providing it with protection intended to prevent discovery of, and appropriate law enforcement intervention into.”

The woman’s attorneys filed a 19-page amended complaint in federal court Thursday (Dec. 16), expanding on an initial nine-page complaint filed in October. The updated document names the officers allegedly involved and alleges that the FCPD damaged a county detective’s work and dismissed his report involving police’s actions.

The suit relates to a prostitution ring run by Hazel Marie Sanchez Cerdas, who brought multiple women from Costa Rica to the U.S. and forced them into commercial sex work in Fairfax County and across the country. Cerdas pleaded guilty to felony racketeering and was sentenced to 30 months in prison in August 2019, with credit for time served.

According to the amended complaint, a friend connected the woman with Sanchez Cerdas, who coordinated her travel in 2010 from Costa Rica. The woman believed she would work as a nanny, housekeeper, or social escort, going on dates to business dinners and events with wealthy men.

Under the belief that she was taking a two-week trip, the woman met Sanchez Cerdas in a Fairfax apartment in 2010. Sanchez Cerdas took her travel documents and threatened her family if she didn’t work as a prostitute, according to the lawsuit.

She was allowed to leave for certain time periods, but under the threat that her family could be harmed if she didn’t return. She escaped in 2015.

Detective Says Police Extorted Sex

A former detective for the county, William Woolf, worked in the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, but the FCPD repeatedly interfered with and jeopardized his work, according to the lawsuit.

When he tried to change his supervisor and report issues to a captain, he received no support from the department, according to the amended complaint.

“Det. Woolf said that trafficking victims, who trusted him, had reported to him that FCPD police officers were extorting sex from the trafficking enterprises they were also protecting,” the lawsuit said.

According to the complaint, superiors disparagingly called Woolf a social worker, and a lieutenant told him to “think about” his kids and not talk about human trafficking. The department later reassigned him to its Major Crimes Division, after which “trafficking cases stopped receiving the manpower and allocation of resources that had earlier supported this work.”

“Police officials regularly derided the notion that trafficked women were victims, insisting instead that they were simply prostitutes willingly engaged in unlawful commercial activity,” the suit said.

The suit also alleges that police tipped Sanchez Cerdas off to sting operations. The FBI investigated at least two officers for corruption but ultimately referred the matter to the FCPD for follow-up, according to the lawsuit.

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Laura Jane Cohen, Springfield District representative for Fairfax County Public Schools (via FCPS)

A coalition that tried to recall school board member Elaine Tholen has filed another recall petition, this time for school board member Laura Jane Cohen.

Open FCPS Coalition says it’s seeking to remove the Springfield District representative over Fairfax County Public Schools’ pandemic response. Dee O’Neal Jackson, the group’s founder, said in a statement that the school board has failed students during the pandemic, especially those with learning disabilities.

“We hope the Court recognizes the concerns of these 8,000 residents and requires Ms. Cohen to explain why the concerns of these parents are invalid,” the group said in a statement, stating that it filed the 8,000-plus signatures collected for the petition on Friday (Dec. 10) at the Fairfax County Courthouse.

Open FCPS Coalition has gathered signatures against multiple school board members and previously noted concerns with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Open FCPS Coalition formed in fall 2020 to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and campaigned to recall Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, and Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish.

Cohen noted Tholen’s case was summarily dismissed after a special prosecutor said he had investigated the allegations in the petition and found that none of them could be substantiated.

“Allowing public officials to be recalled over policy disagreements unnecessarily politicizes their work,” Cohen said in a statement. “Virginia law is clear: differences of opinion over matters of policy are simply not grounds for removal from office.”

While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, it’s received funding contributions from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.

Open FCPS Coalition previously said only one school board member, Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority.

“The Board has worked hard to ensure the safety and health of our 180,000 students and tens of thousands of teachers and staff during the pandemic,” Cohen said in a statement. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to successfully return and keep students in our buildings this year and provide a much more normal school experience in spite of the pandemic related challenges all systems are facing.”

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With Thanksgiving on the horizon, many local entities and organizations will be closed.

Fairfax County government offices and Fairfax County Public Schools will be closed for Thanksgiving (Thursday, Nov. 25) and Black Friday (Nov. 26). County libraries are also closed both days.

Fairfax County Circuit Court, General District Court, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court close at noon today (Wednesday) through Friday.

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter is open for services by appointment only. For emergencies, contact Animal Protection Police at 703-691-2131.

All Department of Motor Vehicle service centers will be closed from Nov. 25 through Nov. 27.

While the Fairfax Connector has regular service today, riders can expect Sunday service on Thursday and holiday weekday service on Friday. More details on specific routes are available online.

Metrorail and Metrobus will also operate on a Sunday school tomorrow and offer week day service on Friday.

All recreation centers will open Thursday from 5 a.m. to noon with the exception of George Washington Recreation Center. All centers reopen on Friday.

The Fairfax County Government Center and South County Government Center vaccine clinic and the Tysons Community Vaccination center will be closed Thursday through Sunday for Thanksgiving. More locations are available online.

For trash and recycling collection, residents should contact their trash and recycling collector directly for any schedule changes due to the holiday.

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Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano (left) and Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Kyle Manikas (right) after going through a courthouse security screening (courtesy Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office)

Video of an encounter between Fairfax County’s top prosecutor and security personnel at the county courthouse does not appear to be consistent with some of the allegations leveled in a Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office incident report.

The report claims Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano and a colleague lost their tempers during a courthouse security screening. According to the Sept. 30 report, Descano and Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Kyle Manikas questioned and cursed at security officers when directed to go through a metal detector upon entering the Fairfax County Courthouse at 9:37 a.m. on Sept. 28.

But the two main triggers that the report says prompted Descano and Manikas to display “disrespect” and “unprofessional conduct” toward the security guards are absent from the video, notes a courthouse source who has also seen the footage viewed by FFXnow.

The report states that, after seeing two law enforcement officers in full uniform bypass the checkpoint and being told by the security guards that uniformed law enforcement officers were exempt from the mandatory security screening, Descano responded by saying “That’s bullshit,” “Don’t you know who I am?”, and “I’m the top law enforcement officer in Fairfax County.”

While no audio was recorded, courthouse security camera footage provided by the sheriff’s office does not show any uniformed law enforcement officers coming into the building and passing the security checkpoint.

Around the time Descano arrives, a sheriff’s deputy and a uniformed man wearing a vest emblazoned with the logo for the security company Brink’s walk by the checkpoint, but they are leaving the courthouse, not entering.

Security camera footage shows a sheriff’s deputy and another uniformed officer pass the security checkpoint on their way out of the courthouse (courtesy Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office)

The sheriff’s office report, which is signed by both a deputy and a supervisor, states that the two security guards gave statements and that facility security “provided a video to corroborate the visual part of the incident.”

“We do not have any comments about the report,” the sheriff’s office said when asked about the discrepancies between its incident report and the security camera video.

The report also says Manikas “was visibly upset about being screened and kept saying ‘This is f**king bulls**t.'”

According to the report, Manikas also became upset when told that the x-ray machine detected a knife in his lunch bag and that an additional search of the bag was needed, claiming that there was no knife in the bag.

After a security officer “rotated the screen of the x-ray around to show CDCA Kyle Manikas the image he was looking at,” the report claims the prosecutor stated, “This is f**king bulls**t, I know you are doing your job, but this is bulls**t.” A search of the bag revealed a butter knife.

In the video, however, when one of the security officers gestures that he needs to look through Manikas’s backpack, Manikas unzips the bag and opens what appears to be a lunch box without any visible hesitation. The officer doesn’t show Manikas a screen, and his side of the x-ray machine is inaccessible to visitors, blocked by the tables where people collect their belongings after getting screened.

A security officer gives a “thumbs up” after checking Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Kyle Manikas’s bag (courtesy Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office)

“As the full video reflects, the report paints an inconsistent picture of what actually occurred,” Benjamin Shnider, chief of staff for the Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, said in a statement to FFXnow.

Descano and Manikas were not available to comment directly.

The incident report circulated around conservative blogs and media before being reported by the Sun Gazette and FFXnow yesterday (Thursday).

Descano has become a target of conservatives since he was one of three Northern Virginia prosecutors elected in 2019 on criminal justice reform platforms, including pledges to stop prosecuting marijuana possession, end the use of cash-bail and the death penalty, and reduce mass incarceration.

Like his reform-minded counterparts in Arlington and Loudoun, Descano is currently facing a recall effort spearheaded by Virginians for Safe Communities, a group led by Republican operatives and funded by undisclosed donors.

A separate group called Stand Up Virginia launched its own recall campaign against Descano in April.

Both groups argue that his office has failed crime victims by declining to prosecute some misdemeanor cases and offering plea deals that some judges have criticized as inadequate.

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Fairfax County Courthouse (via Google Maps)

An incident report from the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office alleges that two of the county’s top prosecutors clashed with security guards when asked to undergo a security screening to enter the Fairfax County Courthouse.

The sheriff’s office states in the Sept. 28 incident report that Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano and his chief deputy displayed “disrespect and unprofessionalism” that was “unsuited for an officer of the court.”

When asked to go through metal detectors at the courthouse at around 9:37 a.m. that day, Descano reportedly asked why two uniformed law enforcement officers didn’t go through security. When told by two security officers that law enforcement was exempt, Descano said “That’s bullshit!” and then asked “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the top law enforcement officer in the county,” according to the incident report. 

The courthouse routinely requires security screening of all employees and attorneys at the request of the Courthouse Security Committee, which is chaired by Chief Judge Penny Azcarate. Descano reportedly stated that he was exempt from the security screening because of his position.

Descano’s office declined to comment on the incident report. FFXnow has not viewed security footage that the incident report purports corroborates the “visual part of the incident.”

It’s unclear whether Descano and his chief deputy were aware of a new screening policy that appears to have contributed to the verbal altercation.

Under the new security policy, which began on Sept. 1, on randomly selected days, every person entering the courthouse must take part in security screenings.

This requires all individuals to walk through a magnetometer and for all bags, briefcases, purses, parcels, and electronic devices to be screened by an X-ray machine, according to the county’s website, which did not provide information about the new policy until yesterday morning (Wednesday).

A Fairfax County Circuit Court clerk declined to comment on all of FFXnow’s questions, including why the new policy was put in place, why uniformed law enforcement officers are exempt, and how it differs from the court’s previous procedures, including an option that allows attorneys to bypass security screenings.

According to the report, Kyle Manikas, the chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney, took issue with a security search of his lunch bag when a knife was detected in the metal detector screening.

“This is fucking bullshit, I know you are doing your job, but this is bullshit,” Manikas reportedly said, as quoted in the incident report. He was described as “physically upset.”

A butter knife was found in the bag.

The incident report concluded that the security officers experienced “disrespect, curse and abuse, and unprofessional conduct.”

Angela Woolsey contributed to this report. Photo via Google Maps

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Fairfax County Public Schools has asked a federal appeals court to postpone an ordered retrial of a former Oakton High School student’s sexual assault lawsuit, setting up a possible escalation of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The school system plans to file a petition for a writ of certiorari requesting that the Supreme Court take up the case, according to Public Justice, the nonprofit legal organization that represents the student, who has only been identified as Jane Doe.

Public Justice told FFXnow that it learned about those intentions Monday morning (Sept. 20), though it’s still holding out hope that the Fairfax County School Board will opt not to file the petition.

The law firm warns that, if FCPS files a petition and the appeal is accepted, it could set the stage for a reevaluation of Title IX protections against gender discrimination, which have traditionally been used to address school-based sexual violence, by the same court that allowed Texas to essentially ban abortions earlier this month.

“Fairfax would be asking them to severely undermine students’ civil rights,” Public Justice staff attorney Alexandra Brodsky, the plaintiff’s counsel, said. “I think there’s a real question for Fairfax families whether they want the legacy of Fairfax schools to be undermining equality and safety for students.”

Filed in May 2018, the lawsuit argues that FCPS violated Doe’s Title IX rights by failing to ensure her safety and provide support after she reported that an older, male student sexually assaulted her when they were on a bus during the five-day school band trip.

The school board’s Sept. 9 regular meeting agenda includes a closed session to consult with legal counsel about the case, known as “Jane Doe v. Fairfax County School Board et al.”

FCPS confirmed that it has requested the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to stay its June 16 ruling ordering a new trial in Doe’s lawsuit over school officials’ response to her report of being sexually assaulted by a fellow student during a band trip in 2017.

With one judge dissenting, the three-person panel reversed a U.S. District Court jury’s verdict in favor of FCPS, arguing that the lower court had failed to accurately define for the jury the legal standard to determine if the school system had “actual knowledge” of the reported assault.

“As the divergent opinions of the Fourth Circuit show, the issues in this case could have nationwide and potentially far-reaching implications,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said in a statement. “For that reason, we have asked the court to stay or suspend the effective date of its ruling, pending further review.”

FCPS said it had no further comment at this time, including on whether it plans to petition the Supreme Court. Read More

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