Updated: Lawsuit says culture of weekly sexual assaults allowed at Damascus for years

Updated: Lawsuit says culture of weekly sexual assaults allowed at Damascus for years

MCPS is defendant in complaint alleging sodomy tradition dating to 2016

| Published:
Damascus lawsuit

Tom DeGonia, a partner at the law firm Ethridge Quinn, speaks during a press conference Thursday morning about a lawsuit filed in a Damascus High rape case.

Photo by Caitlynn Peetz

This story was updated at 6:44 p.m. Thursday to include a statement from MCPS that was not previously available

A new lawsuit alleges Damascus High School staff members knew of a culture of sexual assault in the football program for years — beyond the 2018 rapes of four players — but failed to intervene in an effort to protect its reputation as one of the best teams in the country.

On the afternoon of Oct. 31, 2018, the Damascus High School varsity football team had a 51-game winning streak and was nearing playoffs. The team had won three consecutive state titles.

But before practice, in a team locker room left unsupervised for 25 minutes, four junior varsity football players were sexually assaulted, a crime that would eclipse the team’s season.

The new lawsuit, filed on behalf of several of the teenage boys assaulted on Halloween afternoon, was filed Thursday, about five months after the conclusion of the attackers’ criminal cases.

A fourth boy represented in the lawsuit was allegedly the victim of a sexual assault in a team locker room in 2017.

The lawsuit, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, details several sexual assaults dating to 2016 and claims many were reported to school officials.

Tom DeGonia, a partner at the law firm Ethridge Quinn and one of several attorneys representing the victims, said during a press conference Thursday morning that the defendants 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.”

The lawsuit names the board of education, former Principal Casey Crouse, former coaches Vincent Colbert and Eric Wallich, and former Athletic Director Joe Doody as defendants.

“We’re here today because the leadership of Damascus High School put a winning football culture ahead of a culture of safety, ahead of protecting their own students, ahead of protecting their own players,” said Tim Maloney, a partner at Joseph, Greenwald & Lake and attorney for the victims. “They knew there was a culture of violence in the locker room, yet they allowed it to flourish because they put winning first.”

In a statement issued Thursday night, MCPS said the lawsuit raises issues that had not before been reported to administration.

“We trust that the attorneys who filed the lawsuits have shared their allegations with law enforcement,” the statement says. But if not, the MCPS statement urged the lawyers to do so to ensure it is included in an ongoing grand jury investigation into allegations of hazing in Damascus sports.

“It is important for the entire community to understand that the allegations in any legal complaint will be tested through an extensive process to determine whether they can be proven true,” the statement says. “… Our thoughts remain with the students and families of the Damascus High School community as we engage in this latest phase of the legal process.”

Damascus High Principal Kevin Yates sent a message to members of the school community on Thursday, notifying them of the lawsuit and warning of an “increased volume of media attention to our school community.”

His message says administrators will keep media off the school property during the instructional day and counselors are available for students.

The 33-page lawsuit calls the hazing ritual “notorious” and says a Snapchat thread was created in which JV football players would discuss the “broomings.”

It details 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.

In 2017, a then-freshman told his parents he had been assaulted in the locker room, according to the lawsuit. The parents called Colbert and Wallich, the lawsuit says, but there was no punishment.

Other parents allegedly reported sexual assaults, but Colbert assured them they were “just rumors.”

Lawyers argue the school district did not investigate the claims for fear of jeopardizing the success of the powerhouse football program.

The problems culminated in the October 2018 attack, according to Billy Murphy, an attorney at Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, who also is involved in the case. Murphy called the case “one of the most extraordinary incidents to happen in a public school” nationally.

The lawsuit also takes 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.

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.

A delay in reporting

Damascus High School officials also came under fire for waiting to report the rapes to police until the next morning, despite learning of them the night they happened.

A Washington Post report detailed text messages between Crouse, Doody and Wallich the night of the rapes. The trio compared notes via text, identifying a victim and possible assailants. The next morning, they interviewed several students before notifying police, according to the Post report.

Each has since resigned, been fired or reassigned to new positions within the school system.

The lawsuit 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.” School district policy also says “prior to making a report to [Child Protective Services], it is not the role of any MCPS employee … to investigate or determine the validity of” alleged sexual abuse.

Along with its internal investigation, MCPS spent $250,000 to hire D.C. law firm WilmerHale to investigate how 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 admitted it did not perform a “comprehensive, historical review of unreported incidents.”

The new lawsuit, however, details at least two sexual assaults in 2018 in locker rooms — one at Gaithersburg High School, the other at Seneca Valley High School.

New supervision requirements

In his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021, Superintendent Jack Smith included funds for a new after-school supervision structure “to ensure student safety beyond the bell.” About $215,000 is designated for security guards’ overtime to monitor high school events.

MCPS also issued new requirements for athletics’ staff members to create more thorough and robust supervision plans for after-school activities.
Under the new policy, before the start of each new athletics season, head coaches must fill out a template that outlines who is responsible for pre- and post-practice and game supervision, which locker room is used and contingency plans.

The new guidelines say coaches receive an hour of locker-room supervision per day in their stipends and principals are expected to implement supervision plans. Coaches are also required to show athletes a PowerPoint presentation that includes information about the harmful effects of bullying, hazing and harassment.

WilmerHale reviewed supervision plans created at Damascus High School and “several other MCPS schools,” according to its report, and found they “varied greatly in their specificity and comprehensiveness, even within a single school.”

‘A shocking series of events’

Thursday’s lawsuit says the victims of the 2017 and 2018 assaults suffered physical injuries, as well as “serious and permanent emotional and psychological damage.”

The victims will require “extended therapy” to cope with feelings of shame, fear and suicidal ideations.

It accuses the defendants of negligence. The suit does not specify how much money the victims are seeking in damages.

Attorneys declined to answer questions from the media on Thursday morning.

“This is a shocking series of events and it will not be tolerated as long as any of us have life and breath in our bodies,” Murphy said. “We are going to pursue this aggressively and vigorously to ensure the outcome is consistent with justice.”

Lawyers in the case have established a hotline for anyone with information about sexual assaults at Damascus High School: 800-277-0150.

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

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