School counselor remained in post 20 months after his arrest

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A counselor in Virginia’s largest public school system has kept his job for more than a year and a half after he was arrested for 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 what point in the process it broke down.

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 spoke with an undercover officer and arranged a meeting for sex acts, authorities said in court documents. The officer told Thornton she was 17 and Thornton agreed to meet with her, according to chat transcripts included in court documents. He showed up at the apartment and was met by police, authorities said.

Thornton was found guilty on March 11 and sentenced to five years. But the court suspended the sentence on conditions of good behavior, respect for the law and payment of court costs.

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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 served as a school counselor and varsity basketball coach for Hanover County Schools.

Thornton in June 2022 was arrested in another online chat operation for soliciting prostitution and frequenting a place of debauchery.

Thornton told the newspaper that he was framed by police in the two undercover chat operations and that police were not telling the exact truth about what happened. He did not specify.

According to state law, an arresting agency is required to report anyone accused of a crime who is known or discovered to be a school employee to their school principal.

Chesterfield Police spokeswoman Elizabeth Caroon said department records indicate the Fairfax School System was notified of Thornton’s arrest in November 2020 the next day, and again when Thornton was arrested. in 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 did not recall a similar circumstance.

“We take (educator misconduct) very seriously,” Pyle said. “In 2008, it was the (VDOE) that pushed hard for legislation to tighten reporting requirements around misconduct by educators, and it was then that the duty was imposed on the forces of the order to notify employing school divisions of teacher arrests.”

Thornton’s staff page was removed from the school system’s website on July 28 after The Times-Dispatch began investigating.

Helen Lloyd, also a Fairfax Schools spokesperson, declined to make school division officials available for interviews or to answer questions about safety processes.

Fairfax Superintendent Michelle Reid sent a message to the families on Thursday, saying the division “took immediate action to terminate the employee” as soon as she and the school board became aware of the situation.

Reid said in the message to the families that she had launched a thorough and 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 say it very clearly: this whole situation is unacceptable from all points of view. We are deeply concerned about how this happened at one of our schools,” Reid said in the post. “I want to assure you that we are doing everything we can to ensure that this does not happen again. I undertake to keep you informed of this problem.

Thornton’s next court date for his June arrest is September 27 at Chesterfield District Court.

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