Montgomery County police and school officials are investigating dozens of sexual assault and harassment claims made by students and alumni on social media this week.
Several Instagram pages surfaced this week, calling out, often by name, male students who are accused of harassing or assaulting their female classmates.
First, it was students at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. Then students chimed in from Albert Einstein, Richard Montgomery, Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Thomas S. Wootton, as well as Eastern Middle School.
Soon, more than 100 allegations from at least 12 schools had been compiled on a handful of pages. Other schools mentioned include: Col. Zadok Magruder High, Sligo Middle, Paint Branch High, Wheaton High, and Newport Middle.
MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said Friday that the school district is aware of the many allegations and has notified the Montgomery County Police Department, who will lead the investigation.
“We are deeply, deeply, deeply troubled by these allegations,” Onijala said. “We want to commend the students who have come forward to share their stories. They’re troubling and they’re heartbreaking, and we will do everything we are supposed to do to investigate.”
Montgomery County Police Department spokesman Tom Jordan encouraged victims to report alleged incidents and “we will investigate it thoroughly.”
“I am checking with [the Special Victims Investigations Division] to see if there is anything to the social media posts,” Jordan said.
The allegations cover a range of issues from a boy’s persistence in asking for nude photos to rape.
On Instagram pages titled “Female at Wootton” and “Female at Einstein,” anonymous submissions are accepted and posted without identifying the victims or the alleged perpetrators.
They detail instances in which a girl says she was hit by her significant other for refusing sex, female students being sexually objectified by classmates, boys sharing nude photos of female students, and rapes at parties or students’ homes.
In a message to community members on Friday afternoon, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith wrote that “all allegations involving our schools and/or our students that come to our attention will be investigated.”
He encouraged any potential victims to call police or a county-run victim support hotline at 240-7777-4357.
“We understand that the experiences that have been shared by our students have caused feelings of deep sadness, anger, hurt and disappointment,” Smith wrote. “MCPS is committed to a fair process where all students involved will be provided an opportunity to address the allegations.”
At least six allegations shared on social media this week involved students at Blair. The accused students were named. In some cases, photographs of the boys were posted.
On Twitter, some students asked Principal Renay Johnson to respond to the allegations made against her students, or to voice her support for the victims. Johnson did not respond.
Instead, she appears to have blocked several people, many of whom are currently students at Blair, preventing them from viewing her profile.
According to MCPS’ “social media best practices,” staff members who use a social media account “in a professional capacity should not block users or delete comments on their own initiative.”
The guidance says it is in alignment with recent federal court decisions that determined public officials cannot block constituents. MCPS’ guidance directs school employees to relay concerns about users to the Department of Communications.
Onijala declined to comment specifically on Johnson’s actions, but said it’s important for both administrators and students to “make sure they’re listening to one another and doing so in a respectful manner.”
Johnson did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Students who were blocked commented that Johnson’s lack of response indicated that she was prioritizing the reputation of the school, rather than potential victims of sexual assault.
This week’s social media uprising mirrors that of the #MeToo movement that spread worldwide in 2017 after several women accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault.
The movement emboldened women to break their silence and eliminate stigmas associated with victims of sex crimes.
Most of the local Instagram pages urge people to cut ties with students accused of assault and provide phone numbers and websites for local organizations that support victims.
Many posts start with writers saying they felt empowered to share their stories because of others who shared.
In MCPS, students are taught “personal body safety” with “age appropriate content” in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the MCPS website. It is designed to teach students how to recognize and report abuse.
MCPS also partners with the Montgomery County Family Justice Foundation to hold an annual Choose Respect Montgomery conference to teach students about healthy teen relationships and teen dating violence.
Onijala said MCPS will continue incorporating lessons about consent and body safety into its curriculum, and will retain its partnerships with community organizations that provide sexual assault awareness and response resources to students.
“This is work we do year-round. It’s not just when an allegation is brought to our attention,” Onijala said. “We’re very intentional in speaking to students about these issues. We also take every allegation seriously, and if anyone has any information, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the Montgomery County Police Department.”
Petition calls for changes
More than 1,000 people have signed a letter to the Montgomery County Board of Education calling for 18 changes to curriculum enhancements and new support systems for victims.
The letter calls MCPS’ health curriculum “abysmal” and says it fails to address topics of LGBTQ sex education and consent.
It says that many victims who have come forward with allegations this week say they previously reported the assault and harassment to school officials but the schools “failed to take proper action against the perpetrators.”
“This is unacceptable,” the letter reads. “Students cannot be expected to learn and grow in an environment that prevents their learning. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs the baseline need to be able to function properly is safety, and many of your students feel unsafe.”
It then asks the school board to hire certified victim advocates to work in each school, improve its health curriculum, amend its sexual harassment policy to include a definition of consent, require all students accused of sexual misconduct to take a course about healthy relationships and implement more thorough staff training.
“We can no longer sit by and watch as our students suffer because of your inaction,” the letter says.
Staff writer Dan Schere contributed to this report.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org