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Monday, November 11, 2013

Poe Middle School principal, Stuart employee charged with embezzlement

Poe Middle School Principal Sonya Swansbrough and an administrative employee of JEB Stuart High School, Bethany Speed, have been charged with embezzlement and money laundering, the Fairfax County Police Department reported Nov. 11.

Police began an investigation after being contacted by Fairfax County Public Schools in late September. The allegations involved falsifying time sheets for personal financial gain. Officials believe over $100,000 may have been embezzled.

A joint investigation by Financial Crimes Unit detectives and the FCPS human resources office determined that these incidents began as early as May 2010. 

Police also charged Swansbrough’s son, Brenton Rusnak, 20, of Radford with receiving stolen property in connection with the case.

Swansbrough, 46, is a resident of Woodbridge. Speed, 38, lives in Burke. She had been in charge of finances at Poe but left at the end of the 2012-13 school year to take the job at Stuart.

“I am flabbergasted,” said a parent with a child at Poe, who learned of the charges this afternoon from an email sent to parents. “This is mind boggling. Swansbrough was a really good principal. She was very personable. She made it a point to know the kids and parents. I am literally stunned.”

“Everybody was obviously surprised,” said a Poe employee, who added that staff was cautioned not to talk about the matter. Swansbrough is on administrative leave.

“I am in shock,” said parent Cyra Doty. “This is very out of character. She was an outstanding principal. I never heard a bad word from anyone about her.” 

When Doty’s son was at Poe, Swansbrough “was always kind and generous,” Doty says. “She made a point to sit down and have a discussion with him. My son has huge respect for her.” She even went to football games at Annandale High Schools to support her former students.

“Sonya has always been a high-energy educator dedicated to student learning,” says Leonard Bumbaca, a math teacher at Annandale High School who knew Swansbrough when they both worked at Glasgow Middle School. Swansbrough was an art teacher at Glasgow.

“I am very sad to hear of the charges against a fellow educator of her quality,” Bumbaca says. “The legal process has to run its course, but it’s clear that a fine career dedicated to students is over. Even if she overcomes the charges, she will never be able to come back.”

He doesn’t know the details of what happened, but says if the allegations are true, “it’s totally out of character. She’s just a good person. She’s never had the arrogance of power.”

Swansbrough in happier times.
The real question is what would cause a good person to do something like this. He’s seen instances in other organizations where “people borrow money with every intention of making good on it. And it snowballs from there. Really good people get caught up in embezzlement.”

A story in the A-Blast, the student newspaper for Annandale High School, quotes AHS students who had gone to Poe and are surprised by the allegations:

“She was so nice. I would’ve never seen it coming,” says senior Kowthar Said on the A-Blast website. “I would have never expected it ever from her.”

“She was one of the nicest people that has ever worked there,” said Lily Montes de Oca, also a senior. “She used to help our Girl Scout troop with community service, and she always wanted us to help clean up the old courtyard.”

“It’s crazy, the fact that she steals the money from the school to help herself is obviously wrong,” said ninth-grader Anya Montes De Oca. “She used to give a lot of money to the drama department which is ironic.”

Swansbrough served on an FCPS team charged with exploring ways to close the minority student achievement gap and was on the Professional Renewal and Assessment of Principals Committee, which set the standards and procedures for evaluating school-based administrators.

According to salary data, Swansbrough earned $127,731 a year, while Speed’s salary was $68,383.

This is the entire message sent to Poe parents from Douglas Tyson, Cluster 3 assistant superintendent: 

“We regret to inform you about an unfortunate situation but we wanted the Poe Middle School Community to learn of this news first as you may be reading or hearing about this in the media over the next few days.

This morning, Principal Sonya Swansbrough was charged by law enforcement in connection with financial impropriety with school funds. She has been temporarily relieved of her duties while an investigation is under way. Our current assistant principal, Colleen Noone will be the administrator in charge for the time being and we ask that you give her your full support during this difficult time.

Principal Swansbrough’s former finance technician, Beth Speed, is also facing similar charges. We are not at liberty to discuss in greater detail the specifics related to these charges as this remains an ongoing Fairfax County Police Department investigation. However, internal processes brought these issues to light which were then turned over to law enforcement for further investigation.”

As hard as this situation is, we ask that our parents keep a positive focus for their children and their continued academic success. We as a school staff are committed to our mission to continue to provide the very best educational services for our students. Thank you for your understanding and support.”

Tyson sent a similar message to Stuart parents.


  1. Wow! This is just shocking! Thank you for posting this.

  2. No matter how you look at this, it's just tragic. My question is why FCPS didn't move her to Gatehouse when they referred the issue to Fairfax Police back in September. Clearly, they had lost confidence in her at that point. The arrest of a "former principal" would have been a lot less traumatic to the school and the larger community.

  3. Ambition!!!! First priority for her is the money..... what about your students.Mrs. Swansbrough?

    1. i was a student of her i am now 21 years old and still kept in contact with her. she was one of the most selfless people i'v ever known. and she loves her students and i'm prof of that. because i wouldnt be where i am now if it wasnt for her going out of her way to help me out even after i left poe.

  4. There is nothing shocking about this. Cronyism and nepotism were hallmarks of her administration. she ran the school like Tammany Hall. I worked at Poe and was aware that something was going on.

  5. Sonya deserves the benefit of the doubt! She is an amazing educator and was the driving force at Poe MS... As the parent of 3 boys, with two that have gone thru Poe and one to come, I hope she is exonerated and comes back.

  6. To anyone that truly knows Sonya, she is most loving and caring person you would ever meet. For all of us that she has helped, lets all stand behind her and help her thru this ......believe in she believed in you!!!!!!

    1. i have to agree with you. she is the most amazing and loving person i know. i wouldnt be where i am now if it wasnt for her support and motherly love

  7. Wow, I never could have seen that coming. I had 1 long term sub assignment at Poe, and this Principal made me so special like I was already part of her team... which she did not have to do. Moreover, she made it a point to let me know that she appreciated my service to her students and thanked me personally for continuing to come with, always, a wonderful warming smile on her face. I too wish that they could have moved her from the front office or at Gatehouse considering they had to know that their books were fishy, and considering the short time from report to arrest leads one to believe that FCPS either set her up or wanted to make an example our of her since this fishy stuff may be systemic with Administrators. But, I think it is the latter.