Minnie Howard assault statement criticized

Minnie Howard assault statement criticized

By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

The City of Alexandria rushed to issue a statement on March 18 hours after an article critical of the city’s handling of an alleged sexual assault at a local high school campus broke on NationalReview.com. The alleged assault took place at the Minnie Howard campus of Alexandria City High School in October 2021, and there had been no notification to parents during the five months between the incident and the appearance of the story by National Review.

Parents and community members have subsequently raised questions about the terminology and information in the statement. It remains unclear who authored the controversial statement, as the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office denied authorship and the Alexandria Police Department minimized its role.

The statement released on March 18 reads, “The City of Alexandria is aware of the incident, that it was adjudicated in Court, and that the defendant was acquitted. Pursuant to Virginia State Law Section 16.1 – 301, details regarding incidents involving juveniles must remain confidential and cannot be shared.”

But according to Virginia State Code, the word “acquitted” does not exist in juvenile court, nor does a conviction, as it does in adult court.

If a juvenile is found guilty, the legal term is “being adjudicated delinquent of a criminal act.”

The chosen language in the city’s statement has led some to question how it was written and whose hands it passed through before going to the public.

In a tweet at 7:14 p.m. on March 18, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said, “The statement was issued by the Police Department in consultation with the Commonwealth’s Attorney who prosecuted the case.”

However, Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter denied that his office wrote or approved the city’s release. Porter said that on the morning of March 18, the city manager’s office called him about the incident. He explained to them that the code limits what can be said about a juvenile criminal case. According to Porter, he was preoccupied with a preliminary hearing for a murder case until 6:30 p.m. and did not know about the statement.

“I did not write the City’s press release, I did not review it prior to its release, and I did not approve its release. I did not see the release until that evening, after I returned from court,” Porter said.

Porter also specified that to his knowledge, no one in his office, including the attorney who prosecuted the juvenile, approved the city’s statement.

Alexandria Police Department Spokesperson Marcel Bassett declined to confirm whether or not APD helped craft the statement, but he did say that APD was “made aware” of the statement before its release.

“[APD cannot] confirm what role if any [we] played in the creation of the statement,” Bassett said, encouraging the Times to reach out to the city’s communication office.

Kelly Gilfillen, acting director for the Office of Communications and Public Information, said her office wrote the statement and did not mention involvement of APD.

“The City was in contact with the Commonwealth’s Attorney regarding this matter and then crafted and released its own statement,” Gilfillen told the Times. “It is the City’s intent to inform the public to the greatest extent possible while staying within the requirements of the law.”

Gilfillen pointed to the state code when asked for clarification about the statement.

“The section of the law that’s referenced includes all of the detail that City staff would be able to provide,” Gilfillen said.

According to Gilfillen, the intent behind the statement’s release was to inform the public that the city had taken action regarding the situation but could not comment on further details of the case.

When asked for comment, City Attorney Joanna Anderson said she “cannot comment any further than what the statement says.”

Wilson said he did not play a role in crafting the language in response to questions that started surfacing on the morning of March 18 about the National Review article. Wilson said he reached out to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and city manager to learn more about the disposition.

He said he then directed the city’s communications department to work with the Alexandria Police Department and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to put together a press release to “put as much information as we possibly could out to the public.”

Wilson originally posted the city statement to his social media pages with the word “acquittal,” and later revised the statement to use the correct juvenile terminology. Wilson did acknowledge the difference in terminology between juvenile and adult court.

“Everyone was trying to figure out what we could put out given the circumstances, and they worked to put out as much as they possibly could,” Wilson said. “My understanding is that because [Porter] was tied up in court that day, and [his office] generally [doesn’t] feel like they should issue statements about statements after their conclusion … they left it to police and communications folks to craft the statement and put it out.”

The statement’s release has some residents questioning whether city employees who were not eligible to receive details about a trial involving a juvenile inappropriately received and released that information in their rush to respond to the National Review article.

Community members have taken to social media to express frustrations that the city statement makes the victim look like a “liar.” Others asserted that only APD and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office should have had access to the verdict and the authority to release details about the case, including the outcome, to the public.

One anonymous resident, who will be referred to as Joe, expressed frustrations that, in their belief, Wilson “believes that anything that happens in the city is his responsibility personally and that he needs to get out in front, he needs to comment, he needs to say, ‘Well I’m in charge, and everything is okay, and we took care of it.’”

“The problem with that is that he has zero jurisdiction over ACPS,” Joe said. “ … His job as mayor is to run the meetings, to sign certain very official city documents and to represent the city in ceremonial activity. That’s it.”

Virginia Code § 16.1 – 301 states that juvenile records “shall not be open to public inspection nor their contents disclosed to the public unless a juvenile 14 years of age or older is charged with a violent felony.”

While Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by National Review for its article, and subsequently separately obtained by the Alexandria Times, reference an attack by multiple students on one student on Oct. 6, 2021, only one student wound up being charged. In January after an investigation by APD, the single student was charged with three violent felonies: aggravated sexual battery, rape and forcible sodomy.

According to section B, the police chief may disclose to the school principal that a juvenile is a suspect in or charged with a violent felony “for the protection of the juvenile, his fellow students and school personnel,” and the principal may in turn use discretion in providing information to a threat assessment team established by the local school division.

The threat assessment team is barred from sharing information about the juvenile to the public, yet School Board Chair Meagan Alderton forwarded the entire City Council an email the board received from superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. on Oct. 6, 2021.

The email stated, “FYI there is a potential sexual assault of a student by other students this afternoon at MH. The student has been taken to the hospital and APD is working through [an] investigation. No more details at this time.” Wilson said that email was the last he heard about the assault until the article came out, and that he still does not know the details of the case.

“I don’t know what was accused to have occurred. These are all facts that I can’t be privy to, so all I know is that the police department and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office both thought serious crimes occurred and they charged it, from what I understand, as such. And that’s all I know,” Wilson said.