Prosecutors, defense make closing arguments in trial for former superintendent

LOUDOUN COUNTY, Va. (DC News Now) — Prosecutors made a final appeal to jurors Thursday afternoon in the case against former Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler, but jurors didn’t reach a verdict.

The trial will resume on Friday after many testimonies were made from multiple school board members, administrators and activists.

Ziegler was indicted by a special grand jury for allegedly retaliating against former special education teacher Erin Brooks for testifying to the same panel as it investigated the school division’s handling of sexual assaults.

Brooks, who won the Special Education Advisory Committee Teacher of the Year award in 2021, was recommended for nonrenewal the following school year.

She had brought forth concerns about inappropriate touching by a 10-year-old nonverbal student with disabilities in her classroom. Prosecutors say that the administration at Rosa Lee Carter Elementary School offered ineffective solutions to help Brooks and her teaching assistant, Laurie Vandermeulen.

Theo Stamos, the special prosecutor appointed by Attorney General Jason Miyares, argued that Ziegler’s administration sought to fire Brooks because she spoke out about being touched.

Ziegler’s attorney, Erin Harrigan, argued that Brooks’ contract was not renewed because of her performance as a teacher.

The unwanted touching continued in Brooks’ classroom for weeks. She and Vandermeulen were being inappropriately touched as many as 40 times per day.

Brooks raised concerns formally on Feb. 28, 2021, and school administrators responded within days. Testimony revealed that the student had a Behavioral Improvement Plan (BIP), requiring accommodations such as a communication device and an incentive board.

During observation sessions by administrators, the child did not have access to either. Harrigan said that the child’s inappropriate touching coincided with Brooks’ instruction in the classroom, and said that once the child was moved to another teacher’s class, the behavior subsided.

But prosecutors depicted the school administration’s attitude towards the situation as idle and apathetic. Offering recommendations such as wearing aprons as barriers in the classroom and displaying “no touch” signs, while anticipating adjustments in the students’ behavior would require weeks of proper BIP implementation.

Brooks and Vandermeulen quietly sought guidance from political and education activist Ian Prior, who addressed the ongoing touching during a March 22, 2022 school board meeting. Prior did not name the school, teachers or student. However, division administrators said the teachers violated student privacy laws in bringing the information to people uninvolved in the student’s case. Brooks also forwarded a series of emails to an external email server.

During testimony, school board members John Beatty (Catoctin) and Denise Corbo (At-Large) described an environment of fear of retaliation among teachers in the division. Prosecutors suggested Brooks’ fear of reprisal was well-founded given their accounts.

Brooks’ name was added to a consent agenda for contract nonrenewal, approved by the school board in June 2022. While prosecutors say that was ultimately Ziegler’s decision, witnesses describe the layers of approval involved in the nonrenewal process.

The case was reviewed by both human resources and division legal counsel. Harrigan said it was Brooks’ poor performance review, stemming from her work with the student that prompted the action.

Harrigan is pursuing a civil lawsuit against Ziegler, seeking $1 million in damages.

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