Guest Commentary: The Lessons of Rockville High School

By George Leventhal

I hope all elected officials, and the public, will take a lesson from the tragic events following a sexual encounter at Rockville High School on March 16.

Initially reported as a rape of a 14-year-old girl, the two suspects were described as unauthorized immigrants from Central America, and politicians and the media rushed to denounce them. Sean Spicer at the White House and Larry Hogan at the Governor’s Mansion spread misinformation, reaching a rapid conclusion on the suspects’ guilt and alleging the encounter would not have happened but for a permissive immigration policy. Local and national media delivered characteristically overheated coverage – most particularly Fox News, Fox 5, and WJLA-TV, owned by Sinclair Broadcasting. Elected officials and administrators at Rockville High School, the city of Rockville, Montgomery County and Montgomery County Public Schools received hate messages, including death threats, from an inflamed public, both inside and outside Montgomery County.

The rape and sexual assault charges were dropped on May 5 as more facts from the investigation came to light. It would not be appropriate for me, as an elected official, to judge the merits of the case or who was at fault, and that is precisely the point. In hindsight, many of those who opined quickly on the Rockville High School case appear imprudent and in some cases foolish.

The prosecutorial and judicial functions of government are independent from the legislative and executive functions for a reason. Even in the white-hot media spotlight, it is important that elected officials be judicious in their response to recent crimes, to allow investigations to proceed without prejudice.

In the last few weeks, the Muslim community in the Washington, D.C., area has felt under siege by the murders of three teenagers, Shadi Adi Najjar and Artem Zibarov, who were killed in Montgomery Village on June 5, and Nabra Hassanen, who was killed in Loudoun County on June 17 or 18. We should all extend our deep sympathy to the loved ones and friends of those killed. Our goal should be that everyone who lives here, especially those who fear discrimination and racial profiling, feels safe here.

At the same time, we should remember the lessons of Rockville High School and allow the investigation and prosecution to proceed without inflaming the public dialogue and the potential jury pool. I congratulate the Montgomery County Police Department for its swift and effective work in the investigation of the deaths of Shadi Adi Najjar and Artem Zibarov. I intend to be very circumspect, now and in the future, in casting judgment or coming to conclusions before the investigation and ultimate prosecution are complete.

George Leventhal, a Democrat, is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council.

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