2021 | Schools

Damascus High rape case moved to federal court

Lawyers now alleging negligence, Title IX violations

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Damascus High

File photo via MCPS

A lawsuit alleging a longstanding ritual of sexual assault inside Damascus High School athletics locker rooms has been moved to federal court.

In February 2020, the families of four boys who were allegedly raped in the school’s junior varsity football team locker room filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court accusing school and district officials of knowing about the “hazing” ritual for years but doing nothing to intervene.

The case said the Board of Education and former Damascus High administrators were negligent.

This month, the case was moved to federal court, as attorneys added a new argument: that the district violated the Title IX law.

Title IX is a federal law that makes it illegal to discriminate against a person because of their sex.

Because the case involves juveniles, most of the court documents about the case are sealed, including the plaintiffs’ updated complaint, detailing the new argument. An attorney for the families declined to comment on Thursday afternoon, citing a confidentiality order in place for the case’s proceedings.

The case stems from an incident on Halloween in 2018. That afternoon, before practice, in a team locker room left unsupervised for 25 minutes, four junior varsity football players were sexually assaulted by their teammates. The assaults, and the school district’s handling of them, shocked the community and made national headlines.

During a press conference announcing the civil lawsuit last year, attorney Tom DeGonia said the school district knew about the tradition of “brooming,” in which sophomore football players would “terrorize freshman football players by threatening to, and at times sodomizing the younger players with the broom.”

A second attorney representing the families, Tim Maloney, said at the time that MCPS and Damascus High officials “put a winning football culture ahead of a culture of safety, ahead of protecting their own students, ahead of protecting their own players.”

“They knew there was a culture of violence in the locker room, yet they allowed it to flourish because they put winning first.”

When the attack occurred in 2019, the Damascus High varsity football team had a 51-game winning streak and was nearing the playoffs. The team had won three consecutive state titles.

In May 2020, in response to the lawsuit, MCPS officials denied they had any knowledge of the alleged hazing ritual.

In a response filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, the 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 and that they were negligent in any way.

The response did not address any specific claims, but broadly asserted that school staff members were not responsible and had no prior knowledge of assaults.

The lawsuit called the hazing ritual “notorious” and said a Snapchat thread was created in which JV football players would discuss the “broomings.”

It detailed multiple assaults in 2016, 2017 and 2018, saying they occurred “on a weekly basis.” Some freshman football players were too afraid to change clothes in the locker room, according to court filings.

The lawsuit also took aim at a lack of supervision in the team’s locker room that enabled the attackers for several years.

“Essentially, the JV football locker room at Damascus High School was an unchecked breeding ground for sexual assault committed by other members of the football team,” it says.

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.

In the years since, MCPS has implemented new guidelines regarding the supervision of athletics locker rooms.

The four teens involved were charged with first-degree rape, attempted rape and conspiracy charges. Their cases were tried in juvenile court, with proceedings closed to the public, so their pleas and sentences are not known.

An audit completed by the law firm WilmerHale in 2019 found no evidence of systemic hazing problems in MCPS athletics, though the report admitted it did not “perform a comprehensive, historical review of unreported incidents.”

Since the Damascus lawsuit was filed, similar cases have been filed stemming from alleged rapes at Gaithersburg and Seneca Valley high schools.

At Gaithersburg High, a former wrestler alleged that on Feb. 8, 2018, he went to the locker room to prepare for practice and was “physically restrained” and “digitally penetrated” as three teammates held him down, according to the lawsuit. The assault was described as an “initiation,” by the alleged assaulters, who are identified in court documents by their initials.

A member of Seneca Valley’s 2018 junior varsity football team says that teammates raped him in an unsupervised locker room on Sept. 17, 2018.

Both cases are pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

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