RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A counselor for Virginia’s largest public school system kept his job for more than a year and a half after his arrest on charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor, a newspaper reported.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Virginia has processes in place to prevent sex offenders from working in K-12 schools, but it’s unclear at which point in the process there was a breakdown.
Darren Thornton, 50, was arrested in an undercover chat operation in Chesterfield in November 2020. At the time, he was employed by Fairfax County Public Schools as a school counselor.
Thornton chatted with an undercover officer and set up a meeting for sexual acts, authorities said in court documents. The officer told Thornton she was 17, and Thornton agreed to meet up with her, according to chat transcripts included in court documents. He showed up to the apartment and was met by police, authorities said.
Thornton was convicted on March 11 and sentenced to five years. But the court suspended the sentence on the conditions of good behavior, following the law and paying court costs.
Thornton also had to register as a registered sex offender. The database lists him as living in Richmond. From fall 2006 to spring 2020, he was a school counselor and boys varsity basketball coach for Hanover County schools.
Thornton in June 2022 was arrested in another online chatting operation on charges of solicitation of prostitution and frequenting a bawdy place.
Thornton told the newspaper he was set up by police in the two undercover chat operations and that police do not tell the exact truth about what happened. He did not elaborate.
According to state law, an arresting agency is required to report anyone charged with a felony who is known to be, or discovered to be, a school employee to their school superintendent.
Chesterfield police spokeswoman Elizabeth Caroon said the department’s records indicate the Fairfax school system was notified of Thornton’s November 2020 arrest the following day, and again when Thornton was arrested this June.
But when contacted by The Times-Dispatch last month, Fairfax schools spokeswoman Julie Moult said Thornton was still employed by the school division.
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said he could not recall a similar circumstance.
“We take (educator misconduct) very seriously,” Pyle said. “Back in 2008, it was the (VDOE) that strongly pushed for legislation to tighten reporting requirements around educator misconduct, and that’s when the requirement was placed on law enforcement to inform employing school divisions of the arrests of teachers.”
Thornton’s staff page was deleted from the school system’s website on July 28 after The Times-Dispatch began inquiring.
Helen Lloyd, also a Fairfax schools spokeswoman, declined to make school division officials available for interviews or to answer questions about the safety processes.
On Thursday, Fairfax Superintendent Michelle Reid sent a message to families, saying the division “took immediate steps to dismiss the employee” as soon as she and the School Board knew of the situation.
Reid said in the message to families that she initiated a comprehensive, independent investigation by outside counsel.
“There is no higher priority than the safety of our students and, on behalf of the school board and myself, I want to make this very clear: this entire situation is unacceptable from any perspective. We are deeply concerned about how this happened in one of our schools,” Reid said in the message. “I want to assure you that we are doing everything possible so this cannot happen again. I am committed to keeping you updated on this issue.”
Thornton’s next court date for his June arrest is Sept. 27 in Chesterfield District Court.