Opinion

The Right’s Big Lie About a Sexual Assault in Virginia

This is a story about how the right twisted the sexual assault of a teenager into a culture war fantasy. It’s about how a distorted tale on a conservative website became grist for a nationwide moral panic.

On June 22, a middle-aged plumber named Scott Smith was dragged, lip bleeding and hands cuffed behind his back, from a raucous school board meeting in Loudoun County, Va. According to the local newspaper Loudon Now, he’d been swearing loudly at another parent and leaning toward her with a clenched fist when the police tackled him and pulled him outside. He’d eventually be convicted of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and given a suspended 10-day jail sentence.

Smith’s image quickly went viral as a symbol of the sort of school board strife breaking out all over America. The National School Boards Association, writing to President Biden to request help dealing with the “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” directed at school board members, included Smith’s arrest in a list of examples.

Soon, however, Smith revealed why he’d been so distraught. In an interview with The Daily Wire, a website co-founded by the conservative wunderkind Ben Shapiro, Smith said that his ninth-grade daughter had been sexually assaulted in a school bathroom by a boy wearing a skirt. Smith was opposed to a proposed policy allowing trans kids to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identities, believing it made girls like his daughter vulnerable.

“The point is kids are using it as an advantage to get into the bathrooms,” he told the reporter, Luke Rosiak.

By the time Smith spoke to Rosiak, the story had become even uglier. In July, the boy was arrested in the attack on Smith’s daughter and charged with two counts of forcible sodomy. But pending a hearing, he was allowed to enroll at another high school while wearing an ankle monitor. In early October he was arrested again, this time for allegedly forcing a girl into an empty classroom and touching her inappropriately.

After Rosiak’s article came out, Smith became a symbol of a different kind: a blue-collar martyr to wokeness. Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, Rosiak said, “This story is one of the most disturbing I’ve ever worked on. It raises the possibility that the Loudoun County public schools covered up the rape of a 14-year-old girl at the hands of a boy wearing a skirt in order to pass a school policy that Democrats were adamant about passing.” As a result of that cover-up, Rosiak said, a second girl was allegedly attacked, “and to prevent all of this from coming out potentially, they arrested the father of the victim.”

Not surprisingly, the story ricocheted around the right. Conservatives have long argued that letting trans girls and women into women’s bathrooms would lead to sexual predation, and now that seemed to have happened. They’ve argued that wokeness is a form of tyranny, and in Smith they had a man who seemed to have been tyrannized because his family’s lived experience posed a threat to trans ideology.

If they had it all wrong, it’s almost hard to blame them — the narrative was too irresistible.

Outrage over the assaults has loomed over the Virginia gubernatorial race, where the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, has sought to harness parental anger toward school boards accused of putting left-wing dogma above student welfare. Senate Republicans recently harped on the case in a hearing for an appeals court nominee, Holly Thomas. On Wednesday, Senator Tom Cotton badgered Attorney General Merrick Garland about it, indignant about steps the Justice Department is taking to address threats to school board members. Smith’s daughter, said Cotton, “was raped in a bathroom by a boy wearing girls’ clothes and the Loudoun County School Board covered it up because it would interfere with their transgender policy during pride month.”

Buta Biberaj, the Commonwealth attorney who prosecuted Smith, received death threats. So did members of the school board.

But this week, during a juvenile court hearing, a fuller picture of Smith’s daughter’s ordeal emerged. She suffered something atrocious. It had nothing at all to do, however, with trans bathroom policies. Instead, like many women and girls, she was a victim of relationship violence.

Smith’s daughter testified that she’d previously had two consensual sexual encounters with her attacker in the school bathroom. On the day of her assault, they’d agreed to meet up again. “The evidence was that the girl chose that bathroom, but her intent was to talk to him, not to engage in sexual relations,” Biberaj, whose office prosecuted the case, told me. The boy, however, expected sex and refused to accept the girl’s refusal. As the The Washington Post reported, she testified, “He flipped me over. I was on the ground and couldn’t move and he sexually assaulted me.”

The boy was indeed wearing a skirt, but that skirt didn’t authorize him to use the girls’ bathroom. As Amanda Terkel reported in HuffPost, the school district’s trans-inclusive bathroom policies were approved only in August, more than two months after the assault. This was not, said Biberaj, someone “identifying as transgender and going into the girls’ bathroom under the guise of that.”

On Monday, the boy received the juvenile court equivalent of a guilty verdict. The case dealing with the second attack he is accused of will be decided in November.

We don’t know exactly why the boy was allowed to attend a different school after his first arrest. The district has refused to comment on the transfer because of state and federal privacy laws. According to Biberaj, under state law, juveniles can be detained for only 21 days without a hearing, and her office needed more time than that to get DNA results. A condition of the boy’s release was that he could have no contact with the girl, so he couldn’t return to his original school.

It’s not clear whether the school system had the option of barring the boy from in-person school altogether. In a statement this month, the Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent, Scott Ziegler, called for policy changes that would allow administrators to “separate alleged offenders from the general student body.” Conservatives, of course, have traditionally opposed policies that would keep accused offenders out of school

As Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s secretary of education, said last year, “Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault.”

Even as the facts picture of this case has come out, the damage done by all the disinformation about it will be hard to undo. “Once the politics are over, we’re still dealing with the destruction,” said Biberaj, who wonders how her community is supposed to heal. “You can’t always successfully bring people back to say, ‘I know this is what you were told, but look what happened in court under oath.’”

A sad and complicated truth is probably no match for an exquisitely useful lie.

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