Prince William County schools Superintendent Steve Walts temporarily suspended use of his Twitter account Thursday following news that the School Board has hired an independent outside firm to review complaints about messages to students and photos of Walts with students, including some in which his arm is around students.
"Effective immediately, with great disappointment, I am temporarily suspending the use of this account," Walts said in a video posted on Twitter, calling the complaints “a partisan and personal attack" during his contract renewal period.
"As part of their attacks, they've chosen to smear and slander me for purely political purposes," Walts said. "While I am not concerned about these attacks directed at me, I am significantly concerned they have chosen to bully and attack PWCS students online. Their actions reflect their character."
Walts said because the account is an official account, managed in part by the communications staff, no messages conducted through this account were private.
Please watch this important video regarding my Twitter account.🐐 pic.twitter.com/7hFd4i6kQk— Steve Walts (@SuperPWCS) May 7, 2020
Brentsville resident Guy Morgan, who filed the complaints in March and early April, told InsideNoVa on Thursday afternoon that he asked the school division to issue a retraction on Walts' message, because Morgan said he has not bullied children online. Morgan said the statement is false and defamatory.
A statement by the school division late Wednesday confirmed the division had received three complaints and was taking action to investigate.
"In response to the filing of these complaints, early last month the School Board 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," according to the statement.
The Twitter account, @SuperPWCS, has 31,900 followers and has gained attention because it's the first place the school division posts closing information during winter months — sometimes with Walts singing the news.
Morgan told InsideNoVa he filed three complaints against Walts in late March and early April, including for communicating with students through direct, private messages on Twitter without their parent’s express permission and outside of regular school hours.
A copy of the purported complaints provided to InsideNoVa notes that Walts is shown in photos on the Twitter account with his arm around the waist of students, mainly in group photos.
The school board’s statement Wednesday night said the board and staff cannot discuss personnel matters due to school board policy and regulation, as well as Virginia law.
“Any complaints which are asserted against PWCS employees are taken seriously, regardless of their source, and are addressed under the procedures provided in applicable School Board policies and regulations,” according to PWCS’ statement.
Morgan told InsideNoVa on May 1 that he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the school division requesting all of Walt’s direct messages sent from @SuperPWCS.
Morgan said division staff asked him to narrow his request, because they found at least 10,000 direct Twitter messages that had been sent from Walts’ account over the past 14 to 16 months.
Morgan then randomly selected 10 student Twitter accounts that had previously publicly interacted with the Walts on Twitter, and requested direct messages between Walts and these students.
He received direct messages between Walts and eight of the 10 students, and referenced the messages and other public Twitter posts in his complaint, Morgan said.
In his complaint, Morgan referenced direct messages from the Walts account that were sent to students as late as 11:45 p.m.
Morgan said he did not think it was appropriate for Walts to hold a position of power and to speak privately to students at all times of the day through Twitter.
“I would imagine parents don’t know he’s interacting with their kids,” he said.
In Morgan’s complaint, he said school employees, including Walts, should only email students from official school email accounts and include the student’s parents on any emails. Morgan also said in the complaint Walts has not intervened when inappropriate comments are made in reply to his tweets.
Morgan also said Walts should be investigated for posting tweets about accepting cakes from students after he has called for school closings.
Morgan was one of the defendants in a lawsuit filed by Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop in early 2015. The other defendants were Ryan Sawyers, a former school board chairman, and board member Justin Wilk. Bishop alleged there was a conspiracy to defame him and get him fired. He was never fired.
A judge dismissed the claims against Wilk and Sawyers in March 2019, and Bishop filed a new lawsuit against just Morgan in September 2019. Trey Mayfield, Bishop’s attorney at Juris Day LLC in Fairfax, told InsideNoVa on Thursday the new lawsuit accuses Morgan of putting up a website to defame Bishop.
Morgan said Bishop's lawsuit is without merit.
The full statement from Prince William County School Board:
"The Prince William County School Board, its members and staff may not discuss individual personnel matters, per School Board policy and regulation, and related Virginia law. Any complaints which are asserted against PWCS employees are taken seriously, regardless of their source, and are addressed under the procedures provided in applicable School Board policies and regulations. The School Board is aware of the allegations recently asserted against the Division Superintendent. In response to the filing of these complaints, early last month the School Board 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 full statement from Superintendent Steve Walts:
Effective immediately, with great disappointment, I am temporarily suspending the use of this account.
Unfortunately, a former School Board Member, who was previously censured by the School Board for his behavior, along with his proxies, have chosen to launch a partisan and personal attack on me.
As part of their attacks, they have chosen to smear and slander me for purely political purposes.
While I am not concerned about these attacks directed at me, I am significantly concerned they have chosen to bully and attack PWCS students online. Their actions reflect their character.
I will not allow children in PWCS to become political pawns for those who seek to damage me during my contract renewal period.
As our current School Board has chosen to review these claims, which I welcome, I have chosen to temporarily cease using this account.
It is important to understand this is an official account, not a personal account. It is managed in part by the Communication's Office, per PWCS regulation 910-1. No correspondence conducted through this account was private, and it is subject to The Freedom of Information Act (F-O-I-A).
This communication channel has helped thousands of individuals with the assistance they needed. This includes students in crisis, teachers who have expressed concerns, and parents seeking help. It has been an important and useful resource, and I am closing it only until the smear campaign is brought into the light of day for what it is.
I am disappointed that due to the outrageous actions of a couple of individuals, we can no longer provide this critical outreach, especially during a global pandemic. I hope this is resolved quickly.
However, I encourage you to follow @PWCSNews for information. Thanks for your continued support!