Yes, It’s Fair To Frame The Loudoun County Rape As A ‘Cautionary Tale’

Contrarian writers are attacking conservative media with a giant straw man, claiming right-of-center outlets gave misleading treatment to the story of a horrifying rape in Loudoun County Public Schools. It’s true that conservative media is a small, scrappy bunch of outlets with comparatively limited resources—especially for the kind of investigative journalism Luke Rosiak did in this case—so I entered the debate with a pretty open mind.

The story holds up just fine. It’s the critics who are muddling Rosiak’s account, a campaign that only serves to Own The Cons and protect the incompetents of Loudoun County. Rosiak reported out a story about a teenage girl’s rape that the legacy media completely ignored and the school district lied about. Other conservative outlets paid attention to it.

The detractors here pride themselves on rationality, but are so easily seduced by the appearance of an opportunity to make a “both sides suck” point that they’re undercutting a report that, in this case, does not suck. Indeed, it shed light on the incompetent and corrupt handling of a teenage girl’s alleged rape that nobody else was interested in pursuing.

In Reason, our friend Robby Soave quoted from Cathy Young’s article in Arc Digital to supplement his own take, which arrives at a similar conclusion. I’m quoting it at length so it can be compared with the Daily Wire report that broke the news (emphasis added).

‘Obviously, the fact that the girl had previously had consensual sex with the male teenager does not mean that the May 28 incident was not a rape or that it should be treated more leniently,’ wrote Cathy Young in a piece for Arc Digital. ‘But it does mean, at the very least, that the boy did not ambush a random girl after using his supposed ‘genderfluid’ status to enter the bathroom; he and the victim had been using it for prior sexual encounters.’

The Daily Wire’s reporting also gave readers the strong impression that the school was initially reluctant to involve law enforcement in the matter; journalist Jesse Singal obtained police dispatch logs that ‘strongly dispute’ this notion.

None of this means that the matter was handled perfectly by school, police, or district officials—or that Smith’s fury was unjustified. But it does mean that conservatives shouldn’t hold up the Loudoun County sexual assault as a cautionary tale about the supposed dangers of letting trans students use women’s bathrooms. If anything, it’s a cautionary tale about credulously assuming the worst when it would be maximally politically convenient to do so.

The Framing

Let’s take that last part first, because it’s an argument I’ve heard from a handful of libertarians and leftists. Young and Soave are correct that Rosiak’s story did not mention the restroom had been used by the alleged victim and aggressor for prior, consensual encounters. I fully agree that’s a relevant detail and should have been in the story if it was dug up in the course of Rosiak’s reporting (which I don’t know). That said, it does not in any way undercut the report’s news value as “a cautionary tale about the supposed dangers of letting trans students use women’s bathrooms,” as Soave wrote.

Loudoun County Superintendent Scott Ziegler seems to agree, since he said, “To my knowledge, we don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms” during debate about a pro-trans policy he supported that happened after the alleged rape occurred. We know Ziegler was aware of the incident at the time he said no assaults occurred, just weeks later. It strains credulity to imagine Ziegler was confused or had forgotten the horrific incident. By lying about the district’s recent bathroom record in the service of passing a pro-trans policy, Ziegler made the issue about trans restrooms himself.

It’s true the incident happened before that policy, 8040, passed in August. Rosiak reported nothing otherwise. He did include details about the assailant wearing a skirt and identifying as “gender fluid.”

So if the policy wasn’t yet in place, how is this a “cautionary tale”? The policy would obviously make such encounters easier for teenagers to facilitate, bringing teenagers of the opposite sex together in intimate quarters that are difficult to supervise.

The assailant’s second offense occurred in a classroom — should co-ed classrooms be banned? Teenagers exploit access to unsupervised spaces so, of course, access to unsupervised spaces like empty classrooms and bathrooms with little to no supervision should be limited!

You can disagree with both of those points, but they’re relevant and reasonable, and explain why the story was framed and used as a cautionary tale by an openly conservative news outlet.

More importantly, Scott Smith, the father of the alleged victim who figures prominently in the Daily Wire account, is specifically quoted in the original story saying, “My wife and I are gay- and lesbian-friendly. We’re not into this children transgender stuff. The person that attacked our daughter is apparently bisexual and occasionally wears dresses because he likes them. So this kid is technically not what the school board was fighting about. The point is kids are using it as an advantage to get into the bathrooms.”

Accusations that Rosiak’s report was misleading are misplaced. It’s true that new and relevant details emerged after his story was published. But that’s perfectly reasonable and extremely common!

Journalists are constantly building on their own and other journalists’ reporting. When you report a big story like this out, you often set the stage to learn more. That’s exactly how this works and exactly what happened here when The Washington Post dug up more details last week. The rush to treat Rosiak differently than legacy media journalists is not as fair-minded as his contrarian critics want to believe.

The Phone Records

As for the Singal report Soave cites, it’s true things get a little thorny. Singal obtained phone records from that day he interprets as contradicting the original Rosiak story. “[O]n May 28, 2021, an LCSO School Resource Officer (SRO) was notified by Stone Brige [sic] High School staff of an alleged sexual assault. As the SRO was beginning his investigation, a parent of the victim responded to the school and deputies from the LCSO were also called to respond,” a representative for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department told him.

Rosiak’s story treats credibly a claim from Smith about the police response. Rosiak wrote: “Deputies from the sheriff’s office ultimately responded to the school – not to investigate the alleged rape of a child, Smith said, but because school administrators called them on him for making a scene about it.”

Rosiak also added that the sheriff’s office declined to release records related to Smith, so he didn’t have the logs Singal obtained from LCSO. I don’t know whether that’s from lack of trying or because LCSO kept them private until the story became a public controversy. Nevertheless, the information confirms that a school resource officer responded, and that LCSO deputies were dispatched to deal with Smith.

Whether this is egregious depends on whether you think a rape allegation is serious enough to warrant the immediate dispatch of multiple deputies from the sheriff’s office, in addition to the single resource officer. That certainly seems reasonable, and also seems to be a reasonable position from Smith, who may not have been lawyerly in his comments to The Daily Wire, but might have a point. Either way, this detail does not discredit the report or implicate Rosiak in a hatchet job. It doesn’t even necessarily prove Smith wrong.

Shooting the Messenger

Rosiak is being attacked over a reasonably debatable detail and the same kind of incomplete storytelling all journalists necessarily practice with every single story. No story is ever complete with every relevant detail when it’s published. Journalists, in theory at least, do their best and build on them as more information becomes available from sources and records.

Even if you think this incident has nothing to do with 8040 and transgender bathrooms, it’s clear that people’s concerns about unsupervised co-ed contact are relevant and render Rosiak’s framing (and conservative media’s framing) reasonable.

To recap: a superintendent provided false information about an alleged bathroom rape while a bathroom policy he supported was under debate, the alleged victim’s parent was dissatisfied with law enforcement’s response, the alleged perpetrator later apparently committed a similar offense, a conservative publication reported all of this out while the legacy media did nothing, and journalists are now upset at the conservative publication.

The standard being used to criticize Rosiak and the conservative outlets that amplified his story could take down pretty much any piece of investigative reporting. That isn’t lowering the bar, it’s just reality.

What Rosiak reported may have been incomplete, but that’s common practice and whether something is incomplete is impossible to know until more details emerge. Singal’s point is relevant, but hardly discredits the full report. If you’re charitable, it supports the story, and if you’re uncharitable, it was uncritical of Smith and overly sympathetic to his narrative. But it doesn’t change that Rosiak reported a big story that reasonable people can interpret as evidence of teenagers of opposite sexes getting easier access to restrooms, where supervision is difficult.

Also writing in Reason, Matt Welch helpfully documented the “journalist butchery” of parent protests in Loudoun and other communities. The legacy media is distorting the policies and parents’ reactions. Apolitical people like Smith, who are risking their livelihoods to stand up for their kids, are being smeared. Rosiak and the members of conservative media who saw a “cautionary tale” in his report are not examples of such incompetence.

The theatrical nitpicking of Rosiak and conservative media is not reasonable, it’s the sudden embrace of a standard that would render all investigative journalism impossible. Partisanship is a helluva drug, even if your party happens to be no party at all.

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