Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert will not initiate criminal charges in connection with allegations school division staff allowed students, parents and staff to occupy John D. Jenkins Elementary School without the proper building permits.
In a letter issued Thursday, Sept. 19, Ebert (D) acknowledged that "violations did occur" regarding the school's occupancy permit. But he also said "at no time was anyone in actual danger."
"No one individual is directly and criminally responsible (in this instance) for violating the applicable building code provisions," the letter added. "Therefore, no criminal charges will be initiated as a result of this complaint."
The letter follows statements made by county permitting officials earlier this month that Jenkins Elementary, which just opened to students this school year, was illegally occupied twice by students, parents and teachers before the county issued the appropriate occupancy permit for the building.
At issue was the school's sprinkler system. County building inspectors were initially concerned the system did not meet building code requirements in terms of having enough brackets to support the sprinkler system's metal piping.
After further reviewing the building's engineering plans, county permitting officials issued a temporary occupancy permit for the school on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 23, which allowed the public to enter the building.
The temporary permit, however, was not in place on Thursday, Aug. 22, when parents and students were allowed to enter the school for a kindergarten orientation, or on Friday, Aug. 23, when teachers gathered at the school for a meeting.
The Prince William County fire marshal evacuated the school on Thursday, Aug. 22, shortly after the kindergarten orientation began, according to county officials.
In his letter, Ebert noted the county building officials' careful consideration of the code's requirements, saying they "should be commended for their commitment to the safety of the community in general and to these staff members, students and parents, specifically."
In response to Ebert's decision, Prince William County spokesman Jason Grant said county staff "support[s] whatever decision the Commonwealth's Attorney makes."
Grant said it is the county permitting staff's responsibility to follow the process outlined in the county code, but that the commonwealth's attorney has the final say about criminal charges.
"The complaint is clear. The issue that occurred is clear. It's not disputed that the issue occurred," Grant added. "That's our process to follow through. As it comes to legal proceedings, the commonwealth's attorney is the expert on legal proceedings of how they do that, so we don't make assumptions or guesses of what they will or will not do."
Original story: Prince William County officials say they will file a criminal complaint this week in connection with what they say was a violation of state building code after staff, students and parents entered the newly constructed John D. Jenkins Elementary School before the building received the necessary occupancy permits.
Prince William County Building Official Eric Mays sent a letter to Prince William County Schools Wednesday, Sept. 4 to inform them “the schools violated the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code when they illegally occupied the school on two different occasions.”
Wade Hugh, director of the county’s Department of Development Services, said Monday a criminal complaint against the school division is likely to be filed this week. Violating the state’s building code is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500.
Prince William County Public Schools may appeal the decision to the Prince William Building Code Appeals Board within 30 days. But that option will not affect the county’s decision to file a criminal complaint, Hugh said.
Prince William County Schools declined to comment on whether they will appeal the county’s determination about the alleged violation of the school’s occupancy permit, according to Diana Gulotta, school division spokeswoman.
Jason Grant, the county’s communication director, said the criminal complaint will be submitted to the Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney’s office. The county has not yet said which individual or individuals the complaint will be filed against.
County letter cites violation
According to the county letter, building officials authorized teachers to enter the building on Thursday, Aug. 15, to begin setting up their classrooms under the condition they exit the building immediately afterward. Because the school had not yet received its temporary occupancy permit, the county conditioned the staffs’ occupancy on the condition that “fire watch remain in place; staff set up their rooms only, no meetings or any other events/activity; [and] once staff member[s] complete the room setup, they must exit the building immediately.”
The letter said the school division violated the last condition – that staff members exit the building after their room setup were complete.
“Teachers were allowed to occupy the building,” the letter said.
The county issued a “temporary certificate of use and occupancy” for the school at 2:05 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23 – three days before school began on Monday, Aug. 26 -- which allowed teachers, students and the public to occupy the building.
During the Prince William County Board of Supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 3, Hugh said the school held two events prior to getting its temporary certificate of occupancy.
On Thursday, Aug. 22, staff, students and parents arrived at the school for kindergarten orientation but were subsequently evacuated from the building by the fire marshal because the county had not yet issued the appropriate occupancy permit, Hugh said.
Then, on Friday, Aug. 23, a teacher orientation event was held at the school, Hugh said.
An occupancy permit had not been issued at the time of the events because of a question about the school’s fire-sprinkler system.
In an email, Hugh said the county’s decision to file a criminal complaint for illegal occupation of a building is “not a common occurrence.”
“However, having someone illegally occupying a building on two separate occasions is also not common occurrence,” he added.
School division cites misunderstanding
Prince William County schools has characterized the incident as a misunderstanding between Mays and school division construction staff, who believed a temporary certificate of use and occupancy could be issued ahead of the Aug. 22 and 23 events planned at the school.
In an Aug. 29 letter to Hugh and Mays, Prince William County Schools Associate Superintendent for Support Services Al Ciarochi said, “Prince William County Public Schools acted in good faith and at no time placed the safety of students, staff or parents at risk.”
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com