School board attorney brings a pregnant mother to tears as she testifies about her efforts to “get justice” for a friend facing a “toxic” school culture of bullying | Fairfax County

When she toddled into Courtroom 1000 of the federal courthouse in Alexandria on Friday morning just after 9:30 a.m., a young mother, “Monica,” eight months pregnant, hadn’t seen her friend, “Kate,” in 12 years since they were seventh graders at Rachel Carson Middle School. 

 

But during three hours of questioning in a trial in which “Kate” is alleging the school district covered up sexual harassment, the young woman transported herself back to middle school when she said she tried to “get justice” for her friend, “Kate,” bullied in the hallways with allegedly little protection from officials of a school that “Monica” described as “toxic.” 

 

She stared at the letter that school officials sent her parents afterward, disciplining her for in-school suspension after she reported the bullying.

 

Then, there, on day five of the trial, within minutes of questioning by the school board’s lawyer, Ryan Bates, challenging her account of events 12 years ago, “Monica” started trembling, her breath getting shallow, her step staggered as she lumbered to stand up in the witness stand and then her stride quick as she fled the courtroom, her right hand on her belly, the other on her hip, for a break that Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. hastily called.

 

The human dynamics of this young woman deeply impacted reveal the profound psychological toll of this case that is moving through federal district court, “Kate” alleging that Fairfax County school officials failed to follow federally-mandated protections, called Title IX, that demand that children be able to attend school, safe from sexual harassment. The proceedings have been fraught with conflict, with a school district strategy to discredit the former student. An attorney for the school district, Michael York, a former Washington Post reporter retained in part to cast doubt on the alleged victim, again spent the entire day at the trial, sitting in the front row.

 

Also in the gallery, Rebecca Parker, a friend of “Kate” from college, watched aghast at how the witness, “Monica,” was minimized by defense lawyers throughout the day. Afterward, she said, “It speaks volumes that she came back 12 years later to make sure her friend got justice.”

 

She continued, “My heart went out to her. The courtroom does not abide by the ordinary rules of civilized society. Ordinarily, you don’t have to answer short, pointed questions that feel like an interrogation. They were trying to impeach her credibility. They were not effective. They were trying to put a 12-year-old girl on trial. I was trying to telepathically tell her that she wasn’t on trial.” Parker is using an ancestral name to help mask her friend’s identity.

 

On day five of the jury trial, “Kate” sat on the left side of the courtroom, flanked by her lawyers, ready to continue her testimony, but the judge announced that both sides had agreed that another witness would testify because of scheduling issues: her pregnancy.

 

“J.S.,” or “Monica,” as the Fairfax County Times is calling her, stepped alone into the courtroom, all eyes on her as she gingerly stepped into the witness stand. 

 

In slow, methodical questions, Brittany Zoll, a young associate at Boies Schiller Flexner, asked “Monica” about life at Rachel Carson Middle School.

 

What was the school culture like?

 

“It was very toxic,” “Monica” quickly said. “A lot of bullying going on. A lot of harassing.”

 

What did “Monica” witness “Kate” experiencing?

 

“Harassment and sexual harassment. Her being called names. Sexual names, like ‘whore,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘slut.’”

 

What did she remember about “Kate” as a person?

 

“She was one of the sweetest people I’d ever met.”

 

Her friend, whom the Fairfax County Times is calling “Clark,” testified earlier in the week that he had started dating “Kate” in December 2011. “Monica” said she met “Kate” soon after. 

 

What were classmates saying about “Kate”? 

 

“That she was bi. That she was having sex with a lot of people.”

 

Did she report the bullying?

 

Yes, she said, she went to the assistant principal and school counselor, naming Tamara Ballou, the assistant principal at the time, and Brenda Humphrey, the school counselor at the time. “They said they would handle it from there,” she said.

 

How many statements did she write? 

 

“Three or four.” She added, “They asked me if I was 100 percent sure I wanted to report this.”

 

“Clark” had testified that he had also written a statement about “Kate” being bullied and sexually harassed in January 2012 and then was pulled out of classes four times with assistant principals Ballou, Sybil Terry, and Phil Hudson, asking him if he wanted to “reevaluate” his allegations, a signal to him, he said, that they wanted him “to change” his statement.

 

Did the school investigate the allegations in her statements?

 

“Objection!” interjected Bates, the attorney for the school board.

 

Zoll reworded the question. “Did the school follow up with you on your statements?”

 

“No.”

 

Then, Zoll asked “Monica” to open a binder of documents on the witness stand and go to a statement “Monica” had written on Feb. 12, 2012. 

 

First, did she remember a defendant, J.O., a former female student whom the Fairfax County Times will call “Janet,” ever bully “Kate”? 

 

“Yes,” she said. “I observed her bullying her on multiple occasions, calling her a ‘whore,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘slut,’ saying, ‘She should kill herself.’”

 

Did she observe another student, C.K., whom the Fairfax County Times will call “Chris,” bully “Kate”? 

 

“I observed him on numerous accounts talking very sexually” to “Kate,” along with his friend “Janet,” calling her “‘whore,’ ‘bitch, ‘slut.’”

 

On one occasion, she wrote about “Janet” and another classmate bullying “Kate.” “They called her a ‘whore,’ but I might have heard it wrong.”

 

Why did she write that she might have misheard the remark?

 

She had a simple explanation: She had been bullied herself and didn’t want to invite more taunting. She was friends with the two girls about whom she had filed the complaint. “I would be called ugly.” Wearing glasses, she was called “four eyes.” Her hair was cut short, and she was called “a boy.” Her voice lowered, and she said, “I really didn’t want to be more bullied.”

 

What she saw in “Kate” was a young girl who loved school but was quickly slain by the harassment and alleged blind-eye posture of administrators. “She would come to school very happy. By the middle of the day, she was in tears.”

 

Did she ever see a guidance counselor or administrator help her? 

 

“I did not.”

 

In the first days of testimony, the principal of the school at the time, August “Augie” Fratalli, and a former counselor, Joanne Fraundorfer, now a counselor at Franklin Middle School, said they helped “Kate” but couldn’t recall details and deflected questions to the other staff and former staff officials on trial. 

 

Zoll turned the young mother’s attention to a statement she had written 12 years earlier on Feb. 16, 2012. Her friend, “Clark,” had related to her that “Kate” was worried that she would “get jumped” at school. 

 

“Objection!” Bates said. “Hearsay!” 

 

“Hearsay” is information that a person knows through second-hand knowledge, not first-hand.

 

“I observed threats of her being jumped,” “Monica” said. 

 

Finally, Zoll asked her to read a letter written to the young woman’s parents, notifying them that her daughter was being pulled from in-person learning at Rachel Carson Middle School and assigned to “alternative” learning for children with disciplinary problems.

 

Her alleged crime? “…spreading rumors about other students.”

 

She studied the letter carefully and refused the indictment of her younger self 12 years later. 

 

“I was making statements about what I observed” about her friend, “Kate,” “being bullied.”

 

“I wanted her to get justice for what happened to her.”

 

What was the administration doing?

 

“The administration was trying to keep quiet and prevent me from telling my parents what happened at school,” she said, looking directly at the attorney, past the table of attorneys for the school board, school administrators, and school staff. 

 

In fact, “Monica” testified the anti-bullying briefing seventh graders got at the beginning of the school year was “very rushed and was not cared about.”

 

The first bullet of the training said: “Bullying is not tolerated at Rachel Carson Middle School. Is that a true statement?”

 

“It is not,” the young mother said softly but clearly.

 

At 10:25 a.m., Bates, the school board attorney, jumped up to lead the witness’s cross-examination as a juror ran out of ink and replaced his pen for taking notes.

 

Bates immediately started peppering “Monica” with a fast staccato of questions. 

 

“What team were you on?” Teams were groups, or pods, where students were divided and organized to share classes and locker space.

 

“Champions.”

 

“Kate” was in the Explorers pod.

 

Did she live in the same neighborhood as “Kate”? 

 

“No.”

 

“Did you have any classes” with “Kate”? 

 

“Not to my knowledge.”

 

He continued with rapid-fire questions to which “Monica” had ready responses.

 

“Not to my knowledge.” 

 

“Not to my knowledge.”

 

“Not to my knowledge.”

 

Bates let out an audible sigh and asked for a sidebar with the judge and the other lawyers, white noise filling the room so their conversation couldn’t be heard. 

 

Bates returned to the lectern to ask about the statements “Monica” had written. “Monica” took a sip of water. 

 

He asked her to look at nine administrators staring back at her not far from the witness stand. A former principal and counselor had already testified about the close relationships they built with students. 

 

Did she recognize any of them?

 

“Monica” looked over, studied the nine former and current officials, and turned back to Bates. 

 

“I don’t recognize any of them.”

 

Returning to the statement from lunch, he noted that, in the first part of her statement, she wrote that “Kate” had called a boy’s brother “dick,” the slur for “penis,” before the boy called “Kate” a “mother f*$#@!.”

 

Raising his voice as he looked at Monica, Bates said, “So” the boy’s comments against Kate were “in response” to what Kate had said. 

 

“Monica” looked at Bates and responded: “If that’s what the statement said.”

 

Finishing his point, Bates said: “you don’t list any more bullying.”

 

He asked “Monica” to turn to another statement she had written when she was 12. 

 

“Go to the next exhibit, 137,” Bates said.

 

At that moment, “Monica” started quivering, tears filling her eyes, and her breath became visibly labored. 

 

“Are you okay?” the judge asked her from his seat.

 

“I’m fine,” she said, struggling as Alston urged her to take a breath. “Do you want to stand up?”

 

Alston studied the young mother carefully, her right hand on her belly, and called a quick recess. 

 

“Monica” swept past Bates, her hand still on her belly, the other on her hip, tears in her eyes.

 

Alston explained to the jury, “She looked like she was in some form of distress.”

 

By the elevator bank outside the courtroom, Bates rolled outside on a scooter he was using while nursing a foot injury and joked about the lawyers heading in different directions, “We’re all dispersing to different restrooms.”

 

A family friend of “Kate,” John McKeon, a retired accountant living in New York State, emerged from the courtroom, shaking his head at the tactics of school board members and former and current school officials. 

 

“Fairfax County Public Schools’ officials are so reprehensible,” said McKeon. “They lead a multibillion-dollar school district that is spending millions of dollars to deny sexual harassment, blame the victim, discredit the students who stood up against the bullying, and send a pregnant friend into tears because they still don’t believe her, and they still blame her for ‘spreading rumors.’”

 

“It’s disgusting,” he said.

 

At 11:03 a.m., “Monica” returned to the courtroom. 

 

Alston spoke to her directly, saying, “I have two children. I know what a blessing it is.” And he told her, “You are not the one on trial. We are trying to seek truth.”

 

He told her that his bailiff had put some pillows in the back of her chair to make her more comfortable. 

 

And, with that, the questioning of the young mother for the statements she had written at the age of 12 continued. 

 

Bates returned to the statement that “Monica” had written that she “might have heard” derogatory comments wrong. 

 

“You wrote it because you weren’t sure?” Bates asked.

 

“It’s in the statement,” “Monica” said firmly. She had already explained that she had written the qualifier to avoid becoming a magnet herself for retaliatory bullying. 

 

Bates questioned how “Monica” could have written a statement after “Kate” had left school. 

 

(The lawyer for “Kate” later noted that it was a statement that related to an incident when “Kate” was still in school.)

 

Bates asked about the threat of “Kate” being “jumped.” Didn’t J.O. or “Janet,” say that wasn’t true? 

 

“Yes, but people lie.”

 

Bates turned to the letter from school officials kicking “Monica” out of school for allegedly spreading rumors. Bates said, “That was an effort of the school to squash these rumors.”

 

“Either that or to keep me quiet,” “Monica” interjected.

 

Michael Kinney, a local Virginia attorney representing the nine current and former school officials, stepped forward. He asked her where the Explorers pod was located relative to the Champions pod. 

 

“I can’t remember,” said “Monica.”

 

He continued, “You never reported” that J.O., or “Janet,” had told “Kate” that she “should kill herself”? 

 

“No.”

 

He rested and handed the lectern to Bruce Blanchard, the defense attorney for “Janet.” He criticized her testimony, “You’re qualifying a lot of your answer by saying, ‘That’s what my statement said.’” He continued, “A lot of them are reporting what you heard from other people.”

 

Blanchard mixed up some of the retelling, and “Monica” corrected him.

 

He asked her if her “story” could possibly be accurate.

 

“It’s not a story,” she shot back. “It’s what happened.”

 

In the gallery, Parker, the college friend of “Kate,” quietly cheered the confidence with which “Monica” was speaking. “Yes!” she said to herself, she later recalled. “She was a 12-year-old who stood up to bullying. It’s not the job of adults to now dissect the words of a 12-year-old. She did the right thing 12 years ago. And she was doing the thing 12 years later.”

 

Blanchard asked her why she was afraid of some alleged bullies and not others. 

 

“Monica” explained she was afraid of being bullied by friends she was reporting, not others.

 

Blanchard then turned to “Monica” and pointedly asked, “Did you laugh at people and spread rumors?”

 

“No,” she responded firmly, looking directly at Blanchard.

 

Blanchard: What about the school statement that she was spreading rumors? 

 

Monica explained, “I wasn’t spreading rumors. I was stating facts about what happened” to “Kate.”

 

In the gallery, former Fairfax County Public Schools teacher Debra Tisler whispered, “They wanted to shut her up.”

 

Blanchard raised the statement again, in which 12-year-old “Monica” wrote that she heard slurs against “Kate” but she “might have heard it wrong.” He questioned her about how much time she spent with “Kate.” 

 

Blanchard asserted, “I am trying to understand the depth of your friendship. You didn’t have time with her!”

 

An attorney for “Kate” stood up. “Objection. Argumentative.”

 

Judge Alston: “Sustained.”

 

And, with that, “Monica” soon after padded out of the courtroom, her head held high, her testimony 12 years later for her younger self and her friend from seventh grade complete. 

 

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a Fairfax County Times contributor. She can be reached at [email protected] and @AsraNomani on social media to share tips, feedback, and story ideas. The B.R. v. Fairfax County School Board et al. will start on Monday at 9 a.m., with the judge promising smoked pork for the jury.  The trial is expected to continue for three more weeks in Courtroom 1000 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. at 401 Courthouse Square in Alexandria. The trial typically runs through 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., with lunch breaks around 1 p.m. Laptops, phones, and smartwatches aren’t allowed in the courthouse.