How a Sexual Assault in a School Bathroom Became a Political Weapon

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There had been no second rape — the second sexual assault, though it was never fully described by law enforcement, was charged as a misdemeanor — but by now, the story was fast slipping loose of the evidence at hand. “A ninth-grade girl, 14, reportedly sexually assaulted in a bathroom by a self-described transgender student wearing a skirt,” Carlson told his audience. (The girl’s age was stated incorrectly repeatedly.) Laura Ingraham told hers: “The rights of transgender students being put over the rights of regular folks.” “I’ve heard you sick, disgusting pigs are fine with hiding the sexual assault of a young girl by a trans boy,” read one of many death threats the school-board members received. “You people need to be arrested, tried and then hung by the neck until you’re dead for hiding this.”

Virginia was in the midst of its governor’s race, and the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, had embraced the parents’-rights movement — and embraced its stand in Loudoun County. After the suspension of Tanner Cross, the gym teacher, he went on Fox News to demand his reinstatement. “What we’re seeing right here, right now in Loudoun County, is the liberal left waging a culture war, and the victims are our children,” Youngkin said. In June, he held a rally outside the Loudoun County schools’ administrative building in Ashburn.

His opponent, the former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, had paid little heed to the schools issue. When the subject came up onstage at the candidates’ final debate that fall, McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” By the early hours of the following morning, it was the main Fox News headline from the debate.

That day, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Biden warning that “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an imminent threat,” citing months of disruption, threats and violence directed at school boards and administrators. It called on the federal government to “investigate, intercept and prevent the current threats and acts of violence.” Its litany of school-board-meeting unrest included Scott Smith’s arrest in Loudoun County. The association’s board, under heavy criticism from parents’-rights groups and Republican attorneys general, would apologize for the letter, but not before Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the F.B.I. to discuss “strategies” for addressing such threats with local authorities.

In his campaign speeches, Youngkin connected the dots. “For months, we’ve seen chaos seep into our schools,” he said at a rally in late October. “A new instance each week until the unthinkable happened: Virginia — and America — awoke to the news that a young teenage girl had been sexually assaulted in her Loudoun County school. And worse, the school administrators covered it up, and Loudoun’s commonwealth attorney targeted the victim’s family.”

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