The Prince William County School Board has hired another outside firm to investigate Superintendent Steven Walts' Twitter exchanges with students, school division officials announced Friday.
The school board announced last week that it hired a forensics firm to examine Walts' private, direct messages with students after receiving two complaints alleging the messages violated school division regulations.
On Friday, the school board announced it has hired an independent law firm, Hunton, Andrews, Kurth, to review the work of the forensic firm.
The school division released the following statement on behalf of the school board Friday afternoon:
"...On Wednesday, the board voted to retain the law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations and oversee any ongoing work by the forensics firm. The safety and well-being of our entire school community remains our top priority, and we are committed to conducting a fair and balanced assessment of these allegations."
It's not clear how much the law firm will be paid to oversee the work of the forensic firm, or exactly what that work will entail. Emails to the school division asking for that information were not immediately answered Friday afternoon.
According to Fox5, the school division is already paying Forensic Risk Alliance $580 to $860 an hour to investigate Walts' direct messages to students.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors expressed their own interest in the investigation on Tuesday. The county board voted 7 to 1 to ask the school board to detail the process they are using to conduct the investigation.
The county board also voted to issue its own Freedom of Information Act request for the 10,000 direct messages Walts has exchanged with students via Twitter since 2018.
Original story: The Prince William County School Board has hired an outside firm to investigate allegations that Superintendent Steven Walts violated school division regulations in his Twitter interactions with students.
Walts, who has led the school division for 15 years, began raising his Twitter profile a few years ago by using his account to announce school weather cancellations.
Walts now has 31,900 followers and tweets regularly, usually to highlight students and staff, promote events, and sometimes to share home videos of his family and two dogs or to play the piano and sing about snow day announcements. Shortly after schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Walts used Twitter to reassure and encourage students amid the crisis.
Walts' Twitter feed became the subject of a school board investigation last month, however, when the board received a complaint from Guy Morgan, a Gainesville businessman and political supporter of former school board chairman Ryan Sawyers, a vocal critic of the superintendent. Morgan's complain alleges Walts violated school division regulations in his Twitter messages to students.
In statement issued at 10:46 p.m. Wednesday, May 6, after an electronic school board meeting, the board noted it cannot comment on personnel matters due to school division policy and state law but said any complaints asserted against employees “are taken seriously, regardless of their source, and are addressed under the procedures provided in applicable school board policies and regulations.”
The statement added: “The school board is aware of the allegations recently asserted against the division superintendent" and retained "an independent outside firm to conduct an external review of Dr. Walts’ official Twitter account to determine the validity of the allegations and provide the board with a confidential report.”
The statement followed recent comments Sawyers made on Facebook regarding the Morgan's complaints as well as a report in a local political blog.
Complaint stems from FOIA request
Morgan filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Prince William County schools several months ago, asking for direct messages between Walts and students made via Walts’ Twitter feed. Morgan does not have children enrolled in Prince William County schools but has been a longtime supporter of Sawyers'.
The school division responded that Walts had exchanged “more than 10,000 private messages” with students since November 2018, according to the complaint, which was obtained by the Prince William Times.
Morgan's complaint said Morgan issued a second FOIA request for messages between Walts’ account and eight Twitter accounts belonging to Prince William County students.
Referring to the messages received in response to the request, Morgan alleges Walts violated school division regulations on computer use that require employee accounts to be used only for educational and official communications.
Morgan also alleges Walts' messages violated the school division's standards of professional conduct, which prohibit school employees from following students’ personal social media accounts and bar any non-email electronic communication with students except in emergencies, among other allegations.
In particular, Morgan’s complaint details a series of messages sent over four days in March 2019 during which a female high school student addresses Walts by his first name and asks him if he knows when grades are due.
According to screen shots of the exchange included in the complaint, Walts replies to the girl at 10:56 p.m. on March 18, 2019, by saying he will get back to her about her question.
The next day, Walts informed the student via Twitter that grades were due April 1. In a series of subsequent Twitter messages, Walts asked the girl her name and what school she attends. Walts later messaged the girl to say he visited her school and asked to see her but she wasn’t in school that day. The student replied that she was home sick.
In addition to noting the exchange violated school division regulations, Morgan’s complaint alleges the messages were inappropriate because some were sent after 11 p.m. and because Walts went to the girl’s school and asked to meet with her.
School division spokesman Diana Gulotta did not immediately respond Wednesday evening to a request for comment from Walts regarding the allegations or the school board’s statement.
Lawsuits predate complaint
Morgan contributed $13,305 to Sawyers’ campaign for school board chairman in 2015 and $5,305 to the campaign of School Board member Justin Wilk (Potomac), also in 2015, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Sawyers, a Democrat, was elected in 2015 and resigned from office in March 2018 after calling for Walts to resign. Sawyers accused Walts of not fully informing the school board about an August 2017 car accident during which Walts struck a moped, injuring its driver, while using a school-division-owned vehicle. Sawyers also unsuccessfully sued Walts and the school board attorney for access to the former school board chairman's emails.
Morgan has been involved in a 5-year legal battle with Patriot High School Principal Mike Bishop, who sued Morgan and Sawyers in 2015, and Wilk in 2016, charging defamation of character and conspiracy. The lawsuit alleged the three sought to have Bishop fired from his principal's post.
A judge dismissed Wilk and Sawyers from Bishop's lawsuit in March 2019, after which Bishop withdrew his lawsuit.
Bishop refiled in his lawsuit against Morgan in September 2019, again alleging defamation of character.
The lawsuits stem from a dispute between two western Prince William County youth baseball leagues that were rivals at one time but have since merged. When the dispute occurred, Bishop led one of the baseball leagues, while Sawyers led the other.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com