The external review into local school district policies after rape cases at Damascus High School last fall found no evidence of widespread hazing or sexual assault in high school sports.
On Monday, MCPS released the findings from the review, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based law firm WilmerHale. The report says there’s no evidence of systemic hazing or rape problems in Montgomery County athletics, “but we did not perform a comprehensive, historical review of unreported incidents.” WilmerHale said it reviewed five of the 25 high schools in MCPS.
The review found, however, students are generally unaware of what hazing is and how to report it.
WilmerHale, which was paid $250,000 by MCPS for the review, interviewed 29 staff members and students at Damascus High School as part of its investigation. The firm did not interview victims from the Damascus assaults, alleged perpetrators or their families.
During a press conference on Monday, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said those people were not included in an effort to not interfere with criminal court proceedings.
Police have said that on Halloween afternoon last year, four Damascus High School junior varsity football players raped some teammates in an assault that included a broomstick.
All of the attackers were originally charged as adults, but each had their case transferred to juvenile court, where Montgomery County judges closed the proceedings to the public.
School board member Jeanette Dixon has been outspoken in her opposition to the external investigation. Previously, she has said it was costly and MCPS did not “learn anything we did not already know.”
Beyond Damascus, WilmerHale conducted “focus-group discussions” with staff, athletic directors and coaches at four other high schools, selected at random: Seneca Valley, Montgomery Blair, Walt Whitman and Walter Johnson.
The firm conducted discussions with students from across the county to gather feedback. It found that other reports of bullying or sexual assault in MCPS extracurricular activities were “relatively minor and were quickly and appropriately addressed.”
But the report acknowledges that there were many stones left unturned.
“However, because of its targeted scope and purposes, our review likely did not capture the entirety of bullying, hazing, and sexual assault that may occur (or may have occurred) in the District,” the report says. “Although we believe we obtained candid anecdotal evidence about bullying, hazing, and sexual assault in our interviews and focus groups, we did not conduct a District-wide survey of the prevalence of hazing, bullying, or sexual assault connected to after-school activities. And, our review of historical incidents was limited to those that had been reported through formal MCPS channels.”
The WilmerHale report also found MCPS students are unfamiliar with hazing and how they should respond if they or someone they know is a victim. The firm recommended MCPS create an interactive hazing training required for student-athletes, athletic directors and coaches to complete before beginning the season.
The report also directed MCPS to emphasize the importance of ensuring there’s a positive response “from the top” when a student reports bullying, hazing or sexual assault.
“We’re in an era where student safety is a core part of what we do. … We need to continue to enhance that and promote that,” Smith said.
Other steps that could be taken, according to the report, are increasing security staffing after school and designating supervised spaces where students can spend time between the end of school and beginning of practice.
The report says each school should be directed to develop a reporting protocol specifically for how to manage incidents that occur after school. Schools also should make clear to administrators their responsibility to report reports of bullying or sexual assault, even when a student does not want a formal complaint filed.
Smith on Monday said MCPS will provide an annual update to the county school board about incidents of hazing, bullying and sexual assault in after school activities.
“I think hazing has gone on since there have been human beings on Earth and it has happened,” Smith said. “Our goal here is to diminish it.”
In May, MCPS released the findings of an internal investigation into the incident, which found that the locker room was left unattended for 25 minutes, during which the rapes occurred.
As a result of that investigation, the football team’s junior varsity coach and the school’s athletic director were fired and the football program was put on a “probation period” for the current season. The school’s principal cited fallout from the rape cases as a reason she moved to a new job in the school district’s headquarters.
At Monday’s press conference, when asked if the WilmerHale report was thorough and comprehensive enough, Smith said that it accomplished its goal of reviewing MCPS policies and procedures. Other internal reviews and court proceedings played different roles in the investigative process, Smith said.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy has launched a separate investigation into allegations of a historical culture of hazing at Damascus High School. That review has not been completed.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org