Former Damascus High leaders cannot be sued individually in rape civil lawsuit, judge rules

Former Damascus High leaders cannot be sued individually in rape civil lawsuit, judge rules

Civil case alleges ‘culture of violence’ in football locker room

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Damascus High

File photo

This story was updated at 7:36 p.m. on June 23, 2020, to correct a reference to Eric Wallich’s employment with MCPS.

A Montgomery County judge on Tuesday ruled that former Damascus High School officials cannot be sued in their individual capacities in a lawsuit alleging that school district leaders knew of a longstanding culture of sexual assault in the football program.

The lawsuit alleges that to protect the team’s reputation, school officials didn’t intervene.

In February, three junior varsity football team members who were raped in October 2018 filed a lawsuit against the Montgomery County school board and Damascus High officials. The victims alleged that officials allowed a “culture of violence … to flourish because they put winning first.”

The rapes occurred on Oct. 31, 2018, in a locker room left unsupervised for 25 minutes. The victims said they were sodomized with a broomstick by four teammates as part of a “hazing ritual.”

Four students were charged with first-degree rape, attempted rape and conspiracy for their roles in the attacks. Their cases were tried in juvenile court, with proceedings closed to the public, so their pleas and sentences are not known.

About five months after the conclusion of the criminal trials, the victims filed a civil lawsuit against school officials.

The lawsuit detailed multiple assaults in 2016, 2017 and 2018, saying they occurred on a “weekly basis.” It said there was a Snapchat message created in which JV football players would discuss the “broomings” and that freshman football players were too afraid to change clothes in the locker room.

In court filings in May, defendants — the Board of Education, former Principal Casey Crouse, former coaches Vincent Colbert and Eric Wallich, and former Athletic Director Joseph Doody — denied all claims that they knew of a “brooming” ritual or that they were negligent in any way.

During a 57-minute hearing on Tuesday held via telephone, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Jeannie Eun Kyung Cho ruled that Crouse, Colbert, Wallich and Doody cannot be sued in their individual capacity. She dismissed them as individual defendants in the case.

Tom DeGonia, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that even with the dismissal of Doody, Crouse, Wallich and Colbert as individual defendants, the Board of Education is still a defendant. And the Damascus school officials will still be involved during the discovery portion of the case, he said.

“They’re still gonna be deposed. They’re still gonna be interviewed. They’ll still be involved in the case, but they’re dismissed in their individual capacity,” DeGonia said. “So you can’t sue them for their personal money. You can only sue them for the wrong they did in their capacity as a teacher or an employee.”

DeGonia said he was disappointed with Cho’s ruling on Tuesday, but the plaintiffs’ legal team can amend its complaint based on information it receives during discovery.

According to court records, the discovery phase is scheduled to be completed by Nov. 2, with a meeting of all attorneys set for later in the month

Derek Turner, a spokesman for the school system, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that “at the end of the day, the outcome of this case doesn’t diminish the experience those students had.”

“I want to make sure we’re clear that we’re still focused on supporting the students and families of Damascus. What happened was very tragic,” he said.

The rape allegations shocked the Damascus community and sparked several internal and independent investigations.

An MCPS-led investigation in the months following the 2018 rapes found that the JV locker room was left unattended for about 25 minutes, against MCPS policy, during which the attacks occurred.

Lawyers for the student victims argued football coaches were negligent in leaving the locker room unsupervised.

The lawsuit also says parents had reported previous assaults to Colbert and Wallich, but there was no punishment. It alleges the school district did not investigate the claims for fear of jeopardizing the success of the powerhouse football program.

Further, it says school officials violated MCPS policy and its memorandum of understanding with Montgomery County police that say staff members should “immediately notify the appropriate law enforcement agency of all critical incidents.” 

Damascus High School officials came under fire for waiting to report the rapes to police until the next morning, despite learning of them the night they happened. After learning of the assaults on Oct. 31, school leaders exchanged text messages about how to proceed, identifying a victim and possible assailants. The next morning, they interviewed several students before notifying police.

In the months following the attacks, Crouse, Colbert, and Doody were all either fired, reassigned to new positions within the school district or quit. None currently works at Damascus High. Wallich resigned from his coaching position in January. The MCPS staff directory lists him as a classroom teacher at Damascus High.

Along with its internal investigation, MCPS spent $250,000 to hire D.C. law firm WilmerHale to investigate how the school district staff handled the situation, as well as MCPS reporting policies.

The investigation, not unanimously supported by the school board, found no evidence of widespread hazing or sexual assault in high school sports, but WilmerHale said it did not perform a “comprehensive, historical review of unreported incidents.”

In March, a member Seneca Valley High School’s 2018 junior varsity football team filed a civil lawsuit making similar claims against the school staff and the school board.

In that lawsuit, the student says he was raped by teammates in an unsupervised locker room and school officials did not do enough to prevent the attack.

The player says in the lawsuit that he was raped on Sept. 17, 2018, and alleges that officials at the high school in Germantown were negligent in not taking steps to prevent the attack, despite knowing that sexual assaults had happened in other Montgomery County high school locker rooms.

It alleges that football players pulled the student’s pants and underwear down and “penetrated, touched, assaulted and slapped” him in the locker room before practice.

The Damascus lawsuit briefly mentions the alleged assault at Seneca Valley and says it is “consistent with what happened at Damascus.”

The Seneca Valley student, not identified in court documents because he is a minor, is seeking monetary relief “in excess of $75,000.”

The Seneca Valley case is scheduled to go to trial in April 2021. DeGonia said it’s possible there will be similar motion to dismiss the defendants as individuals in that case, but he didn’t want to speculate further.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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