This story was updated at 12:58 p.m. Feb. 14, 2021, to reflect that a court appearance was rescheduled and at 12:20 p.m. Feb. 15 to add comments about a consultant’s investigation. It was updated again at 4:25 p.m. Feb. 22 to note that attorney Amee Vora is no longer with Sanford, Heisler and Sharp of Washington, D.C.)

Advocates for victims of sexual assault say that those responsible for overseeing the Whitman Crew club program failed to recognize and effectively act on concerns about misconduct.

Parent boards are the authority for rowing clubs, with additional oversight from USRowing, the governing body for rowing in the United States, and from the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit created by Congress under the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017.

Though the club sports programs bear the names of public schools, Montgomery County Public Schools does not oversee the clubs. However, the longtime Whitman Crew coach charged in August with sexually abusing a teen rower had also been a teacher at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.   

Just eight days before Kirk Shipley, 47, of Northwest Washington, D.C., was arrested by D.C. police, the club’s board of directors voted to rehire him for the fall season, provided he agreed to “substantial oversight.”

He also had to agree to support “significant” changes designed to create more accountability in the rowing program, which mostly serves students attending Whitman.

The changes were recommended by an outside consultant who conducted a “culture review” after seven team members wrote a letter complaining about Shipley’s coaching of the women’s team and the board received “disconcerting feedback regarding Shipley,” though no allegations of sexual or physical misconduct, during its annual survey in June 2021, according to Dave Charlton, the current board president.

The board immediately suspended Shipley pending the review, Charlton wrote in a Feb. 3 email.  

The review occurred three years after a previous investigation into Shipley’s conduct by the same human resources specialist.

At that time, the board had hired the consultant to look into a parent’s allegation of a toxic culture, including racism toward a team member.

The board also learned that the parent had reported to school officials and Montgomery County’s Child Welfare Services a rumor that Shipley had become sexually involved with a former member of the women’s team in late spring 2018. In his email, Charlton wrote that the board reported the allegation to SafeSport, which has sole jurisdiction over investigations into sexual misconduct allegations.

“Overall, the [Shipley] case is an appalling example of adults who are in charge and really failed to listen to the people who expressed concerns,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “You have someone who came forward and said, ‘Hey, I’m worried about this.’ It seems that the board really minimized the concerns all together.”

According to charging documents, D.C. police allege that Shipley began a sexual relationship with the 18-year-old rower, who had also been his student, in late May 2018, before she had graduated.

The documents say that another former student says she had a sexual relationship with Shipley starting in the summer of 2013, after she had graduated, but when she was still 17.

Shipley’s attorney, Jon Norris, declined a request to interview Shipley about the charges against him and his role with Whitman Crew. 

Norris also declined to comment to a Bethesda Beat reporter on Monday. A status hearing in D.C. Superior Court originally scheduled for Monday was moved to March 17.

Originally placed on administrative leave, Shipley is no longer employed by the school system, according to MCPS spokesman Chris Cram.

He wrote in an email that the district is not investigating Shipley’s prior conduct while he was a Whitman teacher.

“As he has been arrested and charged, the matter rests with the police and courts,” Cram wrote. “Any other details specific to Mr. Shipley would be considered as a personnel matter and covered by privacy concerns.”

In September, SafeSport banned Shipley from coaching, according to a Jan. 7 email from the organization.

During his 20-year tenure at Whitman, Shipley was known among students as the “cool, fun, chill” teacher. “People would go sit in his classroom during lunch,” says a former student and member of the rowing team who asked not to be identified.

Those sentiments are “universal” when it comes to adults charged with sexually abusing minors, said attorney Norman Schneider, a Somerset resident who has represented several women and girls who have been victims of sexual misconduct, but none in this case. “Every case I’ve had, the outcast is the student or the student’s parents who report this guy because everybody loves the person.”

According to experts, those who commit sexual abuse often spend time grooming their potential victims before physical contact actually occurs.

Although the two former crew team members were 18 and 17 when the abuse allegedly occurred, grooming likely would have occurred before then, Jordan said.

“It does raise a question in my mind about whether the school may have violated Title IX, which is a federal law regarding providing a safe educational environment and not discriminating against people on the basis of sex,” she said. “You can create a hostile environment without committing a type of crime.”

According to the charging documents, the rower who was 18 at the time of the alleged abuse had taken history and geography classes taught by Shipley.

She told police she began texting with Shipley about rowing and personal issues during her sophomore year. During her junior year, she said, she hung out in Shipley’s classroom more often, doing schoolwork or just talking to him, and that continued during her senior year.

The other rower, who was 17 at the time of the alleged abuse, told police that Shipley was her history teacher and her coach during her junior year and “she spent more time in his classroom, talking to him, and working out with him,” according to the charging documents.

Officials of the rowing club, which cancelled its fall season and is helping to pay for therapy for team members who request it, wrote in an email that they are “thankful to the brave women” who came forward and the club will “continue to do all we can to provide our current and former crew members with resources and support.” The club intends to hold a spring season, according to Charlton.

The club did not make anyone available for an interview, but agreed to provide written answers to questions about its operation and governance.

“Healing is incredibly important for our community at this time, and we hope that a fuller understanding of the events that transpired will help,” wrote Jenni Main, a former board member who provided the written responses. “While it is easy to point fingers with 20/20 hindsight, it is important to remember that the individual responsible here is Kirk Shipley.”

In his email, Charlton noted that the board is “required to rely on the respective expertise and experience of SafeSport, MCPS, and Montgomery County child protective services to investigate and report any findings of sexual abuse or misconduct by Shipley. Neither MCPS, SafeSport, nor Montgomery County child protective services reported any findings of sexual or physical misconduct to us.”

Though there were red flags concerning Shipley’s behavior, Schneider said it can be difficult for such parent-run groups to provide proper oversight, especially with a sport like rowing that takes place mostly out of their view.

In 2015, Schneider represented the mother of a Walter Johnson High School student who sued the Walter Johnson Crew Club, its board of directors and a former part-time strength and conditioning coach. Her lawsuit alleged that the coach had sex with her underage daughter and the club did not protect her from him.

The suit was dismissed in 2017 when the parties agreed to settle, according to Schneider and court records.

At the time, the man could not be criminally charged because Maryland law prohibited only full-time coaches and teachers from having sex with someone under the legal age of consent, which is 16. That legal loophole has been closed, Jordan said.

State law now prohibits sex between minors and people 21 and older in a position of authority, including principals, vice principals, teachers, coaches and school counselors.

“The coaches really don’t want interference from parents and they make it so it’s unlikely that someone will have enough experience to put 2 and 2 together when they see something. It’s very hard to have any real oversight,” Schneider said. “So, what you do is make sure you have parents who are happy parents who really want to have their kids get into an Ivy League school that can support rowing or whatever. Whitman is obviously a very, very competitive school and rowing is one way that you can separate yourself out and parents are looking for that.”

Whitman Crew is among a handful of athletic clubs that cater to MCPS students but aren’t affiliated or funded by the school system.

Along with Whitman Crew, several other community rowing clubs bear the name of the school that their members attend, such as WJ Crew, which serves students at Walter Johnson, and Blair Crew, whose team members attend Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

According to MCPS guidelines governing competitive community “club” athletic teams, such teams “may not be sponsored or endorsed by the school in any way.”

The athletic teams can’t receive school funding or school booster funding or hold fundraisers at school events.

However, according to the guidelines, the teams can use a school’s name, colors or mascot in competition as long as the team is “clearly identified” as a community team. But teams can’t use both the name of a school and the school mascot in their names. For example, Whitman Crew can’t use the mascot name “Vikings” in its name.

Established in 1987, Whitman Crew is run by a group of parents known as the Whitman Crew Boosters. Its volunteer board is made up of parents who ask to serve and are then elected by the club membership, according to the board’s written responses.

As head coach, Shipley was a non-voting board member who attended board meetings and participated in general budget discussions, but “was not part of any Board discussion about personnel matters, compensation, bonuses, or any other sensitive matters that were related to him,” the board said in its written responses to Bethesda Beat.

The board sets its policies with the guidance of policies and procedures of USRowing.

“Our policies are designed to take into account all the related safety, security and sound health requirements of not only USRowing, but also the Montgomery County School System,” the club says on its website. “We adhere to and require all active rowers to read, sign, and review these policies each year as required by law.”

According to the board, coaches undergo background checks and are required to complete training by SafeSport to meet all USRowing requirements and standards.

The board noted that Shipley was an MCPS teacher and therefore also subject to all of the background checks and requirements that public school teachers undergo. The board’s contract with Shipley “required him to adhere to all MCPS standards, including the MCPS Employee Code of Conduct, and all USRowing standards which includes SafeSport.”

But Shipley repeatedly violated USRowing standards concerning the role of a coach, including those governing one-on-one communications with team members and his alleged sexual abuse. According to the charging documents, Shipley conversed regularly by text or email with both young women, exchanging sexually explicit messages and photos, and gave each one a vibrator as a graduation gift.

“USRowing has specific guidelines for what coaches can and cannot do,” Schneider said, “and among the things they are very clear about is that coaches are superior to their athletes in their status and they cannot abuse that in any way, even if it’s consensual, because they define the relationship between the coach and the students as not consensual by definition. Every team that rows anywhere has to be a member of USRowing and comply with their standards and when they don’t, they’re in trouble.”

According to USRowing, “once a coach-athlete relationship is established, a power imbalance is presumed to exist throughout the coach-athlete relationship (regardless of age) and is presumed to continue for minor athletes after the coach-athlete relationship terminates until the athlete reaches 20 years of age.”

When asked how USRowing views its responsibility toward the Whitman Crew program and whether it provided any oversight, the organization responded by saying it does not have jurisdiction over sexual misconduct allegations and is required to defer to SafeSport, which has “exclusive” jurisdiction to investigate such allegations. 

“In our experience, the Center takes these matters seriously,” Colleen Bailey, the chief marketing and communications officer for USRowing, wrote in a Jan. 11 email. “Our policy for all organizational members requires Safe Sport compliance. This includes coaches undergoing background checks, receiving Safe Sport training, and being familiar with internal reporting, investigation, and hearing procedures.

“USRowing, as an organization, and the rowing community in general, is very concerned about any sexual misconduct in our sport and we particularly abhor misconduct involving minors. Such misconduct leads to being banned from the sport of rowing.”

During the crew board’s 2018 investigation, the allegation of racism was withdrawn after the HR consultant spoke to eight witnesses, according to the board’s written responses. Once the Whitman Crew Boosters learned of the rumor about Shipley’s alleged involvement with a former rower that had been reported to Whitman Principal Robby Dodd, the board asked the consultant to investigate it.

In an email, Dodd confirmed that he had notified MCPS officials and the county’s child protective services about the rumor.

“While it was not alleged that this rower had a sexual relationship with Shipley prior to graduation, or while she was a minor, the rumor was clearly of concern” to the Boosters, the Whitman Crew board wrote.

In her report, the specialist “asked Coach Shipley directly about this rumor, and he vehemently denied it,” the board wrote. She also “asked all interviewees if they were aware of any inappropriate sexual or physical conduct by Coach Shipley, and no one cited any concerns in this regard.”

However, one of the parents interviewed by consultant Fern Hernberg said Monday that Fernberg never asked whether the parent was aware of “inappropriate relationships” between Shipley and any team members. The parent, who did not want to be identified, also said that though she was aware of the rumors about the former rower and Shipley, she did not bring them up with the consultant because she “didn’t know them to be true.” 

A copy of the August 2018 Investigation Summary Report prepared by Hernberg that the parent provided to Bethesda Beat does not mention the rumors or say that those interviewed were asked about whether they were aware of inappropriate sexual or physical conduct by Shipley.

The parent said she also had contacted school officials in May 2018 about concerns about the team culture. “Nobody did anything,” she said.

Shipley, she said, was violating MCPS policy by directly texting her daughter. “He did say inappropriate things about her boyfriend,” the mother said.

The Boosters reported the rumor to SafeSport in August 2018 to ensure that the organization would investigate. The board wrote that it also confirmed with Dodd that MCPS was aware of the rumor.

When asked about its investigation of the allegations against Shipley, SafeSport responded in an email that it “does not comment on matters to protect the integrity of the process.” Shipley was “made permanently ineligible” to coach in September 2021, the email said.      

On the consultant’s recommendation, the board implemented several changes to the rowing program, including creating a mission statement focusing on cultivating “a team culture of respect,” changing coaches’ contracts to reflect that bonuses would be based on implementing the values of the mission statement rather than winning, and immediately hiring an assistant women’s coach.

The changes seemingly didn’t do enough to improve a toxic team culture that some team members and parents say was fostered by Shipley, who had coached the women’s team since 2002.

In a letter sent to the board in June 2021, seven former team members said Shipley practiced favoritism, pitted teammates against each other to foster competition, and retaliated against those who complained or questioned his decisions. He also texted team members and participated in group chats, often asking about their private lives, according to a team member and a parent who did not want to be identified.

Jordan said that the board “seemed to have fallen into a trap of putting bright lines where they shouldn’t have” and failed to recognize that abusers often exhibit a number of behaviors that can affect vulnerable individuals.

“One of the things we know about abusers is that they … often are racist and sexist and offending and bullying and all of that is being accomplished, but there aren’t bright lines,” she said. “But it sounds like the board looked at an allegation of racism, they weren’t sure about that, but didn’t look at that bigger picture that would have included bullying, that would have included being sexually inappropriate and sexual misconduct, that would have included talking to students not just about those weaker lines, but how he was using his authority to influence their conduct and their sexuality and what was going on. It sounds like he was beloved, so of course people didn’t want to believe he was doing this, but he was.”

About a week before Shipley was arrested, the board rehired him for the Fall 2021 season. The decision followed a period during the summer when he was suspended while the board’s same consultant investigated new complaints about his coaching style, though none involved allegations of physical or sexual misconduct, according to the board.

This time, the specialist conducted 30 interviews with current and former rowers, parents, Shipley, and other coaches, according to the board. The specialist also received approximately 75 emails in response to requests for feedback about Shipley and the program.

“The results were mixed with many expressing strong support for Shipley and his coaching style, and others expressing strong dislike for Shipley and his coaching style,” the board wrote.  The review also found “[t]here have been no allegations (or findings) of any physical or sexual misconduct on the part of Shipley or anyone else involved with the program.”

Shipley was rehired under the stipulation that he “agreed to substantial oversight and to support significant changes to the program,” and sent an apology to current and former crew members that outlined how he would “fix” the problems with his coaching, according to the board’s written responses.

The board implemented additional policy changes, many of which are included in USRowing’s Safe Sport Policy Manual that’s effective Jan. 1.

They include:
• increasing oversight and support for coaches, as well as providing written feedback and evaluations
• expanding SafeSport training to include athletes, as well as coaches and board members
• improving communication policies to include appropriate platforms and guidance about how coaches should respond if an athlete brings up a personal issue
• hiring an ombudsperson to handle confidential reports of concerns
• amending the club’s bylaws to enable the addition of board members who are not parents of current athletes.

After Shipley’s arrest on charges of first- and second-degree child sexual abuse of a secondary education student, the board fired him and sent a letter to the Whitman Crew community.

“We regret offering Shipley a position for this fall season and, in retrospect with what we now know, that was clearly the wrong decision,” the letter said. “We, as board members, are also parents of athletes and we would never knowingly put our children at risk. We know many parents, current athletes, and former athletes are disturbed and angry. You have every right to be. We are as well.”

The two former team members who came forward are focused on getting through the criminal process, said attorney Amee Vora. (Editor’s note: When she was interviewed for this story, Vora was with Sanford, Heisler and Sharp of Washington, D.C., and represented the women. Vora left the firm in January. According to the firm, managing partner Deborah Marcuse now represents the women.)

“Their goal at the end of the day has always been to ensure that this person can never perpetrate this type of abuse again,” Vora said. “That’s the singular mission that they are focused on.”

Julie Rasicot can be reached at editorial@bethesdamagazine.com.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com