Over the past several weeks, the media has been riveted by a horrible incident in Virginia. In June, police forcibly removed a middle-aged man named Scott Smith from a school board meeting in Loudoun County. Smith would later tell The Daily Wire just why he’d been so upset: his ninth-grade daughter had been sexually assaulted in the school bathroom by a boy wearing a skirt. Smith said the boy was allowed in the women’s bathroom because of the school’s policy around allowing students to use the restroom that aligns to their gender identity.
“The point is kids are using it as an advantage to get into the bathrooms,” Smith told Luke Rosiak, who reported the story.
The story has become a flashpoint in Virginia and a regular talking point in a heated gubernatorial race. Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin called for the superintendent and school board to resign, saying they’d tried to cover up the assault. Earlier this week, Senator Tom Cotton told Attorney General Merrick Garland that the girl “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.”
Political narratives are simple. They have to be. Too complicated or nuanced and you start losing people. Political parties work hard to divvy up our complex lives into convenient bits of evidence for the story they want to tell. For the most part, this is pretty harmless. But when the sexual assault of a teenage girl is used as ammunition for a culture war, thoughtful citizens need to push back.
Because a young girl was raped in a school bathroom. Her life will never be the same. And as details of what happened emerged during the trial, it became clear that this story, like most, doesn’t map onto a political narrative or the culture war battlefield. People who want to use it as proof that their political vision of the world is correct have to flatten the story’s tragedy to fit, and the only people who are well-served by that are politicians and media pundits. The actual victim is forgotten, because the real person isn’t useful for the agenda — only the fiction.
First off, the attacker was wearing a skirt at the time of the attack, but he did not take advantage of a transgender-inclusive bathroom policy, because no such policy was in place in May, when the girl was attacked. The Loudon County School Board has since implemented such a policy, but that wasn’t approved till the end of August.
Second, authorities have not commented on the attacker’s gender identity, though he has been referred to by male pronouns throughout. The victim has testified that the two had met in the girl’s bathroom on two previous occasions for consensual sexual encounters. They had agreed to meet there again, but the girl just wanted to talk. “The evidence was that the girl chose that bathroom, but her intent was to talk to him, not to engage in sexual relations,” the prosecutor told the New York Times.
But the boy did not take her refusal for an answer and, according to her testimony “flipped me over. I was on the ground and couldn’t move and he sexually assaulted me.”
The attacker was found guilty in juvenile court. The prosecutor said that this was not a case of a boy “identifying as transgender and going into the girls’ bathroom under the guise of that.”
Now, just because this doesn’t conveniently fit one certain type of culture war doesn’t mean it easily fits another. Some have tried to use these facts to absolve the school board and depict them as blameless saints. But that does not appear to be the case either.
Some 2,500 students across multiple schools in Loudon County walked out this week to protest of what they see as a mishandling of sexual abuse allegations and to show solidarity with survivors. “Loudoun County protects rapists,” they chanted for several minutes.
That’s because while the boy’s case was pending a hearing, he was released and sent to another school with an ankle monitor. While there, he allegedly forced another student into an empty classroom and touched her inappropriately. There are more questions than answers around this incident, with state and federal privacy laws obscuring important details. Why was the attacker allowed around other students? Was distanced school an option? Were authorities at the second school aware of the charges? If so, why wasn’t he more closely monitored?
Parents in Loudon County have a right to more details about the systemic failures that led to a known attacker taking advantage of another student, and administrators should be help accountable for those failures. Virginia is hardly unique in its abysmal institutional response to the victimization of women, but that doesn’t mean all involved are innocent. Any attempt to depict the anger in Loudon County as baseless mob mentality has to ignore the very real fact that a student with a known history of assault was put in a position where he was allowed to take advantage of another student.
All of this fact-finding and conspiracy-busting can feel a little obscene. It reduces a horrifying experience into the cold, atomized facts. But when a case like this starts garnering media attention, it’s important for all of us to check our partisanship at the door, and listening to the full story — not just the parts that confirm our priors — can help us do that. Because this attack isn’t an arrow in the quiver of any culture warrior. It’s not a good reason to vote Republican or Democrat. It’s a real tragedy with a real human victim at its center. And when a victim becomes nothing more than a mascot for a cause, the human herself is often forgotten — nothing more than a disembodied slogan for someone else’s cause.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.