Fairfax Schools promises hiring changes after former adviser’s conviction

Fairfax County Public Schools will change some of its hiring practices after an internal review sparked by a middle school counselor who was able to keep his job after being charged with soliciting a minor, officials said this week.

Darren Thornton started working at Glasgow Middle School in 2020. According to court records, he was arrested in an online chat operation in November of that year on charges of soliciting a Chesterfield County minor into prostitution. The former counsel would work in Fairfax County for nearly two years before being fired last month.

As a result of the incident, members of the school board ordered an independent, outside investigation that found Chesterfield County police failed to notify the county of the counselor’s arrest, FCPS officials said in a expression on Tuesday. The Chesterfield County District Court’s office did not notify the school system of the counselor’s conviction as of September 2021, officials said. Chesterfield officials have said in media statements that emails sent to Fairfax County executives regarding the former counselor’s criminal record bounced and were not forwarded to the school system.

Thornton was arrested again in June 2022 on charges of soliciting prostitution and visiting a bawdy place in another reported online chat operation Richmond Times Dispatch. Chesterfield officials called the school system to notify them of the second arrest.

The Virginia Department of Corrections, which was tasked with overseeing Thornton’s post-conviction parole, was also investigating the incident. Staff in the agency’s Chesterfield area “have been disciplined and will receive additional training,” spokesman Benjamin Jarvela said. The agency is also reviewing its processes in other districts to prevent similar things happening in the future, he said.

Prior to this school year, principal Michelle Reid said she and the board fired Thornton when made aware of the conviction.

The Fairfax County school counselor kept his job after the courtship conviction

A person answered the phone at a number listed for Thornton Wednesday and then hung up after a Washington Post reporter introduced herself. Further attempts to reach Thornton were unsuccessful.

After their investigation, the school system leaders acknowledged that there is “room for improvement” and identified several “systemic issues” in the way the district handles the hiring, licensing, furlough, firing and termination of employees. “These have been exacerbated by factors including significant brain drain,” officials said.

In summarizing the report’s findings, county officials said there were several gaps in the county’s hiring process. The district declined to release the full report, citing attorney-client privilege, work products and personnel issues.

However, officials outlined several measures that the district plans to implement. The school system will work with Virginia lawmakers — as well as federal, state and local law enforcement agencies — to ensure information about employee arrests and convictions is released in a timely manner, officials said.

It will add more steps to its reference-checking process for prospective employees, including requiring more “descriptive” documentation to support applicants. County leaders are also exploring the possibility of enrolling in the FBI Rap Back program — under which employers will be notified if an employee is involved in criminal activity that involves fingerprinting — once it becomes available in Fairfax County.

The school system will also change the way it checks licenses for prospective employees and do more to ensure licenses are in good standing. And to address issues related to employee vacation time, ways are being developed to ensure absences and vacation time are “documented, verified and monitored in a timely manner, and provide administrators and employees with professional development for reporting vacation time and their obligations to ensure a provide correct payroll,” officials said.

Reid presented the findings to Glasgow parents during a meeting this week.

The report also found that Fairfax County schools have a problem with “consistently and promptly” firing employees convicted of crimes rather than suspending them without pay. Going forward, it will “initiate layoff and license revocation requests” for those employees, officials said.

The changes will be implemented “in the coming weeks,” officials said, and will be accompanied by “frequent accountability reviews.”

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