Prince William County Superintendent Steven Walts’ Twitter troubles have expanded to include a $2.3 million defamation of character lawsuit filed against him and the school board by former school board chairman Ryan Sawyers.
Sawyers has also filed a separate writ of mandamus lawsuit against the school division in June asking a judge to mandate the release of thousands of direct messages Walts exchanged with students via Twitter, a request the school division has so far refused.
Sawyers, a Democrat who resigned his chairman’s post in 2018, filed the latest lawsuit in Prince William County Circuit Court on July 13. It alleges Walts made “false and defamatory” statements about him in a video Walts posted to his now-defunct Twitter account back in May.
Walts’ posted the video to announce he was temporarily shutting down his Twitter account amid an investigation the school board launched in response to complaints about his social media use. The complaints came from Guy Morgan, a Gainesville resident and political supporter of Sawyers’, who received some of the direct messages Walts exchanged with students via Twitter through Freedom of Information Act requests filed in March and April.
Morgan’s complaint to the school board highlighted messages Walts exchanged with students, sometimes as late as 11 p.m., and accused Walts of placing his hands on female students’ waists in selfies and photos he posted to Twitter.
Walts has denied any improper use of his Twitter account and has maintained that it was not a personal account but rather an official school division account that was monitored by the school division’s communications staff.
In his video, Walts said the complaints were launched by “a former school board member” who had “chosen to smear and slander [him] for purely political purposes.”
Walts did not mention the former school board member by name but said he “was previously censured by the school board for his behavior.” Walts further said the person had “chosen to bully and attack PWCS students online” regarding Walts’ Twitter account.
Sawyers’ lawsuit alleges Walts’ statements refer to Sawyers and claims they subjected Sawyers to “undeserved scorn, embarrassment, humiliation” and damaged his reputation in the community.
The lawsuit further claims the statements hurt Sawyers financially. Sawyers owns a youth coaching and summer training program for school-age athletes.
“An accusation of abusing and bullying school-age children is devastating … because [Sawyers’] livelihood relies on the goodwill of school-age children and their parents to generate revenue,” the lawsuit states.
Sawyers’ complaint also named School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef and the school board as defendants in the lawsuit, claiming they reviewed Walts’ statement before he made the video.
The school board voted Tuesday, July 28, to allow an attorney funded by the school division’s legal insurance policy to defend Walts in the lawsuit.
Walts did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment emailed to school division spokeswoman Diana Gulotta.
Gulotta issued a statement on the school board’s behalf, however, which said, in part, that the board “believes this lawsuit has no legal or factual basis and should be dismissed.”
“This lawsuit, and the demand for more than $2.3 million, is the latest chapter in the plaintiff’s obvious goal of discrediting the school system he once led,” the statement added.
Sawyers declined to comment on the litigation Wednesday.
School board yet to release Twitter investigation findings
In a July 22 closed session meeting, the school board heard the details of the investigation, into Walts’ Twitter account, which was conducted by legal firm Hunton Andrews Kurth and forensic accounting firm Forensic Risk Alliance.
The school board has so far declined to release any information about the investigation’s findings. Lateef released a statement after the meeting, saying “the board plans a public statement in the near future.”
“We undertook this independent review in May after questions were raised about the administration’s use of social messaging to communicate with students,” Lateef said in the statement. “We will now take the information we received and review it with the appropriate administration officials, including the superintendent.”
Lateef said the board would use the investigation’s findings “to undertake a range of responsive actions, including an assessment of current policies, procedures and training regarding official use of social media platforms.”
Since launching the outside investigation, the school division has denied FOIA requests for Walts’ Twitter messages, including one that came from the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
The county board voted May 12 to send its own FOIA request to the school division for all 10,000 direct messages Walts exchanged via Twitter, a number the school division used when it denied one of Morgan’s earlier requests.
In his lawsuit, Sawyers said he did not participate in Morgan’s initial FOIA requests or his complaints to the school division. Sawyers acknowledged, however, using his private Twitter account “to state his views that Walts’ use of the Twitter account was inappropriate and should be investigated,” the lawsuit states.
On June 15, Sawyers filed a writ of mandamus lawsuit against Prince William County schools to ask a judge to order the school division to release Walts’ Twitter direct messages, which he also requested via a FOIA inquiry. That case has yet to receive a court hearing.
Sawyers’ latest lawsuit is the second he has filed against Walts. Sawyers unsuccessfully sued Walts in 2017 in an effort to ask a judge to mandate that Walts give Sawyers access to former school board chairman Milt Johns’ email account. Sawyers was still on the school board at the time, and the lawsuit prompted a formal censure from his fellow school board members.
Also in 2017, Sawyers filed a defamation of character lawsuit against a Woodbridge resident who helped launch a campaign to recall Sawyers from office. That lawsuit is ongoing and is scheduled for a Sept. 24 hearing.
Sawyers was involved as a defendant in a years-long defamation lawsuit filed against him by Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop. Bishop sued Sawyers, Morgan and School Board member Justin Wilk (Potomac) in 2016, alleging the three conspired to have him fired. A judge dismissed Sawyers and Wilk from that lawsuit in 2019.
Bishop appealed the judge’s decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, which declined to take up the case. Bishop has since refiled his lawsuit against Morgan, again alleging defamation of character stemming from a dispute between two rival youth baseball leagues in western Prince William County that dates back to 2013.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com