ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent wrote a letter to Damascus High School families on April 14 informing them that the county state’s attorney’s office wanted student-athlete complaints dating back six years. The request comes as prosecutors begin to investigate the culture surrounding the school’s athletics program.
In the letter, Superintendent Jack Smith told the community that the state’s attorney’s office “has launched an investigation into allegations of a culture of assaultive behavior, bullying or hazing at Damascus High School.”
“They have subpoenaed student records regarding any of these behaviors for all students who participated in athletics at Damascus High School from 2013 to (the) present,” Smith wrote.
Any information submitted to the state’s attorney’s office “may be used as part of a legal investigation or in a court proceeding,” Smith wrote.
Ramon Korionoff, spokesperson for the county state’s attorney’s office, said the state’s attorney does not comment on subpoenas in pending litigation.
The alleged first-degree rape of junior varsity football players by their teammates occurred in a locker room on the high school campus on Oct. 31. It involved sodomy of the alleged victims with a wooden broomstick. Players interviewed by detectives refereed to the practice as “brooming.”
At least five Damascus students were involved in the alleged incident, but police ultimately charged four of them as adults — a requirement for a first-degree rape charge — at the direction of Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy in November.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Steven Salant has since ruled that all four teens’ cases transfer to juvenile court this year.
McCarthy said in press conferences during the suspects’ court appearances that he intended to launch a deeper investigation to see if the school had a history of hazing. Recently, the school system has started to investigate around the alleged Oct. 31 incident after it received clearance from the state’s attorney’s office.
MCPS is planning to broaden its investigation of supervision of the boys’ locker room on Oct. 31 to include “reporting practices and supervision of athletics and other extracurricular activities more broadly at Damascus High School, in the context of such practices and structures across MCPS,” according to Smith.
“Last month, the State’s Attorney’s Office approved our request to begin an internal investigation of the supervision of the boys’ locker room on the afternoon of October 31, 2018,” Smith wrote. “This investigation is underway, and we expect it to conclude in the coming weeks.”
Smith wrote that MCPS plans to hire a consultant to help with the investigation, but he did not specify whether the consultant will supply “expert support” or whether MCPS has hired the consultant.
“Our hearts and thoughts are with all of the students at Damascus and the students who reported the victimization, and that’s an issue we take very seriously,” Smith said at a press conference April 15.
“It’s been a long process, because we cannot step on the toes of the state’s attorney or law enforcement when they’re doing investigations,” said Smith.
Smith told parents and guardians of Damascus High School students in the April 14 letter that MCPS intended to comply with the state’s attorney’s office subpoena and it will not get in the way of MCP or county prosecutors during the investigation. Back in December, he first informed Damascus parents and guardians that the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office was investigating allegations of a culture of hazing on campus.
Prior incidents of brooming were discussed during two of the motions to transfer jurisdiction to juvenile court hearings. Two of the four suspects said they themselves had been victims of brooming the previous year, according to psychologists called by the suspects’ attorneys, but did not report it to MCPS.
Shelly Brown, representing one of the defendants, explained after Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Steven Salant granted her client a waiver to juvenile court that her client did not want to be labeled by his peers.
“He said he didn’t report it because he didn’t want to be labeled a ‘snitch’ or a ‘punk,’” Brown said during a press conference. “Obviously if you’re on a football team you want to play, be a part of the team, and there was obviously no one there to explain to these children that what was going on was wrong,” Brown said of her client during a press conference.
Diana Conway, who has advocated for students and families in MCPS to the board of education and is the parent of a former county student, said she imagines guardians and alleged victims who filed the complaints reacting to the subpoena in one of two ways.
“That’s really two sides (it could go) specific to every situation, both the gravity of the alleged offense and also the attitude of the alleged victim,” Conway said.
The guardian and student might be anxious about their complaint being used in court, or they may feel comforted that a complaint may receive warranted attention.
“I could also understand that students, for sure, and also parents or guardians if they’re in the know, would feel some relief that it’s (the complaint is) finally going to go to the level of possible criminal sanction,” Conway said. “Where a student who felt powerless and that the institution or the school had not adequately addressed the issue, I can imagine that person feeling like, ‘Finally, somebody’s paying attention.’”
One attorney asked an expert to look into how well the defendants might or might not have understood the implications of the incident they took part in. Brown, citing a psychologist whom she called to the stand, said many teenagers do not know that “hazing” is wrong.
“Most teenagers who are subject to hazing don’t understand that this is wrong, don’t understand that this is assaultive behavior,” Brown said.
There is room for education on hazing in the school system, Brown said.
“I think it should start with education, and supervision of the children while they are on the property of Montgomery County Public Schools,” Brown said, about preventing future incidents like the alleged first-degree rape occurring on Oct. 31.