2019 | Schools

School Board Not Unanimous in Support of Outside Investigation in Damascus

$250,000 review being conducted by D.C. law firm

Damascus High School.

Photo via MCPS

Some Montgomery County school officials say a $250,000 independent investigation into the rape allegations at Damascus High School last fall is necessary, but one school board member disagrees.

Four Damascus junior varsity football players are accused of using a broomstick to rape some teammates on Halloween afternoon, the last day of the team’s last practice of the 2018 season. In court proceedings this year, some defendants said the “broomings” were part of a hazing tradition at the school. MCPS officials have said some Damascus High staff learned of the assaults the same evening, but did not report them to police until the next day.

This spring, six months after the alleged rapes occurred, MCPS hired Washington, D.C.-based law firm WilmerHale to investigate how the MCPS staff handled the rape cases.

WilmerHale will also examine MCPS reporting protocols for serious incidents and any other instances of “hazing, bullying or sexual assault” in athletic programs at Damascus.

WilmerHale is expected to draft recommendations for potential improvement for MCPS.

The law firm, through interviews of staff members and students, will also review any incidents of hazing, bullying or rape at three other undisclosed high schools dating to 2017.

Board of Education President Shebra Evans and MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith signed the contract with WilmerHale on May 6 that says MCPS will pay up to $250,000 for the law firm’s work.

The law firm recently told the school system it needs more time to complete its investigation, which was originally anticipated to be finished by June 30, according to a written response to a Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) request by Bethesda Beat.

Neither the contract nor the PIA response says how long the deadline has been extended.

Bethesda Beat requested a copy of the contract from the school district’s public information office in mid-July. District spokesman Derek Turner wrote in an email response that the copy would not be provided until “late August,” because it “has to be reviewed for confidential information in accordance with state law.”

Bethesda Beat subsequently filed a PIA request on July 25 and received the contract Thursday, with part of one sentence redacted.

School board member Jeanette Dixon wrote in a text message that she supports ensuring policies and procedures are in place to promote student safety, but spending $250,000 on the external investigation is not “good stewardship of our funds.”

“I think a committee of staff, parents and students, in consultation with Board members, could have come up with the same recommendations,” Dixon wrote. “We have people within the MCPS community with the experience, skill and good judgment who can be trusted to do an investigation.”

In an interview Thursday, Evans said MCPS wanted to ensure it was doing its “due diligence” in conducting the review and didn’t want to take staff members away from their jobs to assist.

“Every time we have an incident occur that is along the lines of a crisis or something we’ve never had happen before, we take a look at what we’re doing and what can do differently so … not only our students feel safe but the community and parents feel comfortable sending their kids to school,” Evans said. “Hopefully when it’s all said and done, everyone is satisfied that we’re doing the work that’s necessary to ensure students are safe.”

The four teens accused of raping their teammates face criminal trials in juvenile court. County judges have closed all proceedings related to the cases to the public so far.

The school system in May announced it had completed an internal review of the Oct. 31 incident. Smith ordered an overhaul of the football coaching staff, who he said left the locker room unattended for about 25 minutes, the time when the rapes are alleged to have occurred.

After the allegations surfaced, Principal Casey Crouse resigned and started a new job in the school system’s central offices.

MCPS also issued new guidelines for sports supervision. The guidelines say coaches receive an hour of locker room supervision per day in their stipends and principals are expected to implement explicit supervision plans.

Coaches are also required to show athletes a PowerPoint presentation that includes information about the harmful effects of bullying, hazing and harassment.

The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office has launched a sweeping grand jury investigation into allegations of a systemwide hazing culture in extracurricular activities at the 1,300-student high school.

School board Vice President Pat O’Neill said she understands that contracting with WilmerHale for an external investigation is “certainly a lot of money” and “nothing to sneeze at.” But, she said, it is necessary to ensure MCPS has the best policies in place to handle allegations of bullying, hazing and sexual assault.

O’Neill said WilmerHale has not contracted with MCPS before.

“In a way, this is being proactive for the future,” O’Neill said. “Student safety has to be first and foremost, and a fair, unbiased look, even if it is multiple times, is warranted.”

Turner said in a statement that the review is “an important investment” to ensure student safety and well being, and the findings of the review will be made public.

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