Defense attorney says judge erred in ordering new trial for fired Loudoun Co. schools superintendent

The lawyer for fired Loudoun County, Virginia, school system Superintendent Scott Ziegler says a judge erred in ordering a new trial after setting aside his misdemeanor conviction related to the firing of a special-education teacher.

Ziegler was convicted in September on one count of violating the state’s conflict of interest law for not renewing the contract of the special education teacher who had reported that a student inappropriately touched her.

However, earlier this month, Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Douglas Fleming set aside Ziegler’s conviction, finding that while there was “ample evidence” to support a jury’s conclusion that Ziegler knowingly retaliated against the special education teacher, Erin Brooks, faulty jury instructions rendered the conviction illegitimate. The judge then ordered a new trial.

Ziegler was indicted by a special grand jury, convened by Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, that was tasked with investigating the school system’s handling of two in-school sexual assaults by the same high school student in 2021. The case played out amid a debate over policies for transgender students and received national attention, in part because the teen boy who was convicted in both attacks wore a skirt during one of them.

Ziegler’s indictment on violating the conflict of interest law dealt with separate allegations brought by Brooks. She testified to the special grand jury and told school system critics that she was being repeatedly touched by a student inappropriately.

Prosecutors said Ziegler’s efforts to ensure Brooks’ teaching contract was not renewed amounted to retaliation for her speaking out on a matter of public interest, which is illegal under the conflict of interest statute.

Ziegler’s trial was the first time anyone in Virginia had ever been tried in court for allegedly violating the 2004 Virginia Conflict of Interest of Act.

In a March 18 objection to the judge’s order setting a new trial, Ziegler’s attorney, Erin Harrigan, said Fleming’s opinion relied on an incorrect legal interpretation. The defense attorney said that in order to convict Ziegler, prosecutors would have had to prove that he knew the alleged conduct specifically violated the state’s conflict of interest law.

“There was no evidence whatsoever presented by the Commonwealth to the jury that Dr. Ziegler received training, communication, education, or guidance about the Conflict of Interest Act at all, let alone evidence that recommending a probationary teacher for nonrenewal could have been a violation of the Act,” Harrigan wrote in the filing.

The judge’s opinion also cited evidence against Ziegler, including that during a June 7, 2022, board meeting, Ziegler said he was “excited” the special education teacher was being fired because she gave information to the grand jury and that there was an “abrupt and inexplicable about-face” in the Brooks’ performance evaluations after she gave information to the grand jury.

However, the defense attorney said neither piece of evidence shows Ziegler knew that such conduct was prohibited by the conflict of interest law.

Harrigan also said the insufficient evidence presented by prosecutors at trial renders a new trial impermissible and that Ziegler must be acquitted of the charge.

Ƶapp has reached out to Miyares’ office for comment.

In his September trial, Ziegler was acquitted of a second misdemeanor count of punishing an employee for attending court.

Separate legal troubles for Loudoun Co. public schools 

Ziegler was also charged with false statements in relation to comments he made during a livestreamed school board meeting about sexual assaults in school bathrooms. However, prosecutors later decided to dismiss that charge.

Wayde Byard, the school system spokesman, was also indicted by the special grand jury, but he was acquitted in a trial last June.

Last October, the family of the teenage girl who was sexually assaulted in a Loudoun County high school bathroom in 2021 — which set off the firestorm of political controversy — filed a $30 million civil rights lawsuit against the county school board for allegedly not following Title IX protocol.

Brooks, the special education teacher, has filed a defamation suit against the school board, saying that she was subjected to a smear campaign after she reported inappropriate touching by the special education student.

The school system said the special education student was a nonverbal elementary school student with significant intellectual disabilities whose actions were being mischaracterized.

Ƶapp staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at Ƶapp since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined Ƶapp.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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