The Washington Post

They trusted a coach with their girls and Ivy League ambitions. Now he’s accused of sex abuse.

Kirk Shipley, the rowing coach at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Md., held onto his job through two investigations into his behavior. Then he was arrested.

Kirk Shipley, the Whitman High School rowing coach accused of sexual abuse, watches a team work out at the Bethesda, Md., school in 2018. (Laura Chase de Formigny)
26 min

The rowing season had already ended by the time the seven girls began drafting a letter that they hoped would get their coach fired.

They’d spent years competing for the crew team affiliated with Walt Whitman High, one of the Washington region’s highest-achieving public schools. In an affluent Maryland suburb fixated on success, their team was a juggernaut, regularly winning medals at Philadelphia’s prestigious Stotesbury Cup Regatta — the world’s largest high school racing competition — and sending its rowers on to Brown, MIT, Yale and other top colleges.

Many credited the team’s accomplishments to its longtime head coach: a Whitman High social studies teacher named Kirk Shipley. At 47, he was a three-time All-Met Coach of the Year who’d led the parent-funded club program for nearly two decades. He’d cultivated a loyal following, becoming drinking buddies with rival coaches and accepting invitations from rowers’ parents to dine at their Bethesda, Md., homes. They trusted him with their daughters — and their Ivy League ambitions.

Now, three days after their graduation from Whitman, the seven rowers decided to send a missive to the parent board, a group of mothers and fathers who volunteered to oversee the program. In just a few weeks, one girl was headed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; at least three others had earned scholarships to row in college. None of them wanted other students to have the same experiences they’d had with Shipley.

The coach, the seven warned in the letter they sent June 15, “has taken advantage of his role on the team and used his position to create a toxic, competitive atmosphere that fosters negativity and tension among the athletes. ... He very clearly plays favorites, and when athletes spoke up or criticized his actions, their boat placement was often affected. This could be seen all three years we were on the varsity team.”

They detailed the times he’d pitted girls in different boats against each other, called them names, asked probing questions about their boyfriends and delved into their personal lives in ways that felt invasive and inappropriate. After one of their teammates attempted suicide, they told the 14-member parent board, Shipley had bluntly asked her, “So, how did you try to do it?”

Read the letter from the seven Whitman rowers

This wasn’t the first time Shipley, who declined an interview request through his attorney, had been the target of a complaint about the way he operated. He’d been investigated in 2018 after being accused that spring of creating a toxic culture — a claim he denied, arguing in an email to the complaining parent that it was just “the competitive nature of the Women’s program at Whitman.”

A human resources consultant hired by the parent board said in a report that she found “quite a lot of bitterness” over Shipley’s perceived favoritism toward “his chosen rowers” and described a “potentially polarizing, unapologetic style” of coaching. But she didn’t recommend any drastic changes to the program.

And nothing happened to Shipley, even as rumors were swirling that the coach had begun a sexual relationship with a girl on the team, inviting her to coffee after finals, then to his home in Georgetown.

The girl told friends that she and Shipley had “hooked up after graduation” — which the parent who’d lodged the toxic culture complaint reported to the human resources consultant, the team’s board, both Whitman’s outgoing and incoming principals, the school system, Montgomery County child welfare authorities and USRowing. All acknowledged to her that they’d received the information, but the complaint seemed to go nowhere.

“I did what I felt was the right thing to do,” said Terri Ravick, who teaches science at a neighboring high school and whose daughter rowed for Whitman until 2018. “After all of that, I didn’t hear anything else. Nothing from anybody.”

Three years later, after receiving the letter from the seniors, the parent board launched another investigation, relying on the same human resources consultant, Fern Hernberg, whom they’d used in 2018. This time Shipley was suspended with pay from the program while the investigation was being conducted, the board announced, much to the consternation of some parents, who didn’t think it was necessary or good for their kids.

In her new report, the consultant noted that some rowers felt demeaned and disparaged by Shipley and said he had “insufficient respect of boundaries.” But, she said, “it’s important to emphasize that there were never any allegations of physical or sexual misconduct.”

None of it shook the coach’s support. On Aug. 16, the parent board announced it had renewed Shipley’s contract, which paid him a base salary of $34,500, plus $10,000 for summer coaching, in addition to the $101,656 he earned teaching.

Only one father voted against his return, arguing the program’s success didn’t outweigh the well-being of its athletes.

In an apology letter to the team, Shipley promised “to do better.” He attributed his behavior “to the stress and anxiety of living in COVID-America. This is not an excuse but a recognition that I, too, am imperfect.”

But his coaching comeback would last just eight days. On Aug. 24, Shipley was arrested at his home by D.C. police.

The charges: first- and second-degree sexual abuse of two former Whitman rowers.

‘Who knew about this?’

The 14-page criminal complaint against Shipley, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, laid out a disturbing pattern of behavior.

The two former Whitman students who came forward in August — one who was 17 when she graduated in 2013, the other who was 18 when she graduated in 2018 — described to D.C. police how Shipley had ingratiated himself with them.

He’d invited each girl to hang out in his classroom before and after school, where they’d do homework and chat with him about improving their rowing techniques or their college prospects. He flattered and encouraged them, they told investigators, making them feel special and confiding details about his personal life.

As their senior years approached, he increased communication, usually by text or Google Chat, in messages that grew more explicit and eventually included naked photos and salacious videos being sent back and forth. According to the criminal complaint, Shipley gave each girl a vibrator, portraying it as a graduation gift.

There were 152 text messages in the complaint.

In one exchange from 2013, the 17-year-old asked Shipley when he’d started being attracted to her.

“I do not remember,” he replied. “but if I did I probably wouldn’t tell you. It might be earlier than you are comfortable with.”

In a 2018 conversation with the 18-year-old, who was just weeks away from graduating, Shipley encouraged her to masturbate while showering because it “would help her relax” and improve “her rowing performance.” They also discussed birth control options because, Shipley pointed out in a text, they couldn’t “have any little Shipley’s running around.”

Around Memorial Day weekend, he picked the student up in his car and drove them around his neighborhood, she told police. He kissed her on a side street, she alleged, and placed his hand on her inner thigh. She also visited his home twice, where, according to the criminal complaint, they had oral sex.

“I hope you give up control to me,” Shipley said to her in one text. “Or can give it up.”

“I don’t need control in every aspect,” the teen replied. “Of my life.”

“Good,” he said, “because I plan on making you feel Things you cannot imagine.”

Read the criminal complaint against Kirk Shipley

Both women declined an interview request through their attorney. The Post generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.

Shipley’s arrest was accompanied by assurances from school officials and prosecutors that he’d been placed on administrative leave from teaching. He was also barred from entering Whitman and from communicating with past and present students and rowers.

“These charges are deeply troubling and are a violation of the core values of our school and school system,” Principal Robert W. Dodd said in an email sent to the parents of Whitman’s 2,000 students.

Dodd arrived at Whitman in July 2018, taking over from longtime principal Alan Goodwin, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked to discuss how the 2018 allegation against Shipley was handled, Dodd forwarded the request to district officials.

Chris Cram, a spokesman for the school system, said Dodd had “shared the information immediately” with district administrators.

“This is a personnel matter and needs to remain confidential,” Cram said in a statement, “and so there is little we can say at this time.”

But the school system did contact the police about the allegation, Cram said.

Questioned about whether an investigation was opened, a Montgomery County Police Department spokeswoman responded: “Information provided to police in 2018 did not appear to be criminal in nature, nor did it support a criminal allegation.”

The rower was not contacted by police or child protective services, according to someone involved in the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

The county’s child welfare agency said “confidentiality laws prohibit us from commenting on a specific case.” USRowing declined to discuss its response, but in September it permanently banned Shipley from coaching.

The parent board agreed to answer The Post’s written questions about the 2018 allegation against Shipley and why the board chose to renew his contract after two investigations.

“While it is easy to point fingers with 20/20 hindsight, it is important to remember that the individual responsible here is Kirk Shipley,” the board said through its new president, Dave Charlton, whose daughter rows for the team.

A week after Shipley’s arrest, the board informed the families of all of Whitman’s rowers — which included nearly 100 girls and boys — that it had “severed all ties with him” and were “incredibly sorry for the pain and anguish that all of our athletes and parents are experiencing.”

“We regret offering Shipley a position for this fall season and, in retrospect with what we now know, that was clearly the wrong decision,” the email read. “We, as Board members, are also parents of athletes and we would never knowingly put our children at risk.”

The board assured parents it had reported the 2018 allegation to SafeSport, a nonprofit that investigates coaches accused of abusing athletes, and confirmed that the school system was aware of the claim.

“The Board relied on the respective expertise and experience of MCPS [Montgomery County Public Schools], SafeSport, and Montgomery County child protective services to investigate and report any findings of sexual abuse or misconduct by Shipley,” the board wrote. There were none.

Read the full apology letter from the parent board

In its statement to The Post, the board also said Hernberg, the human resources consultant, “asked Coach Shipley directly about this rumor, and he vehemently denied it.”

Hernberg, who did not respond to requests for comment, made no mention of the allegation in her 2018 report. She does not list the rower as one of the people she interviewed.

Ravick, the parent who’d first sounded the alarm about Shipley, said she felt both disgusted and furious as she read the criminal complaint, which was being shared across Bethesda and beyond.

She’d pushed the board to take action against him, but “no one wanted to say anything. No one wanted to challenge Shipley. It was always the same thing — he’ll retaliate against our kids. I was always the one saying, ‘But we are paying the money, so why shouldn’t we be the ones that are in charge?’ ”

Another parent, Chris Sheldon, whose daughter signed the letter about Shipley after graduating in June, said he couldn’t bring himself to read the document in one sitting.

“It was disturbing on so many levels,” said Sheldon, 48, who works as a creative director in advertising. “And it made me feel like that could’ve been my daughter, very easily, to get caught in that. You worry about stuff like that and think about it, but it’s never really this close to home. I feel lucky that she wasn’t his next target.”

Shipley’s overly familiar way of communicating with the girls had always made him feel uneasy, Sheldon said.

In addition to a Facebook group, called “Destination Domination,” where he would post updates about practices and competitions, Shipley also texted the girls individually, in direct violation of the school system’s code of conduct, Sheldon said.

His daughter didn’t like the way the coach encouraged her and her teammates to confide in him over text, he said. But she loved the sport so much that she kept a rowing machine, called an erg, in her bedroom, and wanted to impress Shipley.

Now she and other rowers — some of whom were moving into college dorms for their freshman year — formed a private Facebook group to share their experiences with Shipley. His reach went beyond Whitman. He also coached at D.C.'s Thompson Boat Center, where athletes from 13 high schools, along with Georgetown and George Washington universities, practice and compete on the Potomac River.

Some recent Whitman graduates confided in the Facebook group that they drank with the coach during college breaks, when he’d made suggestive comments, or touched them inappropriately.

One woman, a 2005 Bethesda Chevy Chase High graduate who’d rowed at the boat center, recalled a weekend in January 2009 when she’d run into Shipley and an assistant coach at a bar. They drank shots together and chatted. She told him about her boyfriend. But later, Shipley followed her to another bar and tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to leave with him.

“Even though I was 21, and it was legal,” she said in an interview, “it felt predatory.”

She and other former athletes — nearly all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the charges against the coach — described feeling a deep sense of betrayal.

A 2010 Whitman graduate said she was in “total shock.” Shipley had been a mentor, someone “we all trusted.” He’d been to her house and eaten dinner with her family.

Another rower who’d been a member of the 2018 Whitman team said she now believes “he was lying in every interaction I had with him. Shipley was someone that I trusted. That entire relationship is a lie.”

After she finished reading the criminal complaint, the woman who’d rowed at the boat center was left with an unsettling question: “My first thought was, ‘Who knew about this?’ And even if they didn’t explicitly know, who could have connected the dots and chose to ignore it?”

‘Obsessed with winning’

Long ranked as one of the country’s top public high schools, Whitman has always been a place where parents and students equate success with getting into elite colleges. Its culture was the subject of a 2006 book, “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids,” by Whitman graduate Alexandra Robbins, who went to Yale.

Shipley, who began teaching at the high school in 2001, had his own Ivy League pedigree: He’d rowed for the University of Pennsylvania.

At Whitman, he established himself as a popular figure. He judged the “Whitman Idol” competition, chaperoned a school ski trip to Breckenridge and was often mentioned in the student newspaper.

Most of his time, though, went to the rowing program, where he began coaching in 2002. He took the sport seriously. In one Facebook post, he told rowers that the team was “the most important priority in your lives other than family and academics (and that may be a tie).”

The program was funded by the families of roughly 100 Whitman girls and boys. Parents — many of whom work in high-powered jobs as corporate executives, attorneys and consultants — paid $4,000 to $8,000 for their children to participate. The program operated as a tax-exempt nonprofit with a nearly half-million-dollar budget, according to its most recent Form 990s filed with the IRS.

Though Shipley oversaw both the boys’ and girls’ teams, parents and former athletes said he focused his coaching almost entirely on the varsity girls.

He joked to parents that he liked them best because they “listen to me.” He posted photos of the girls on his Instagram, where his username was @shipoopietakethattothebank.

Shipley lived near the Thompson Boat Center, buying a place in Georgetown for $910,000 in 2015, property records show. He shared the white townhouse with his Rottweiler, Flex, and rented out the basement to other coaches.

One former rower, who graduated in 2015, said that “rowing was Shipley’s entire life.” After he persuaded the parent board to add summer and fall rowing, the girls trained with him nearly every month of the year — a move that one parent, Michael “Spike” McLaughlin, noted “even college programs don’t do.”

The demands of being on the team were intense. Practices were hours long and held at the boat center, about a half-hour drive from Whitman.

“You went right after school and stayed there until nighttime, and then you went home,” said Violet Slepoy, who rowed for Whitman and graduated in 2010. “You were spending hours a week doing this.”

The sport required strength and endurance, so the girls would run up and down “The Exorcist” steps — a Georgetown landmark that appeared in the horror film — go on miles-long jogs clutching a 12-foot oar and compete to see who could earn the best score on their 2,000-meter row. If you weren’t throwing up, said one recent graduate, you weren’t working hard enough.

On the Potomac, Shipley coached from a small motorboat, known as a launch, shouting instructions through a $395 megaphone that he’d labeled with his name in permanent marker.

Some weekends, the team traveled to regattas. For spring break, they often went to Oak Ridge, Tenn., the training site for several Olympic teams. They flew to the Scholastic Rowing Association of America’s national championship in May and also to Sarasota, Fla., in June for youth nationals.

“He had been at Whitman for so long that parents were okay with him taking nine girls [from] a boat on a trip by themselves and staying with those kids in a hotel or an Airbnb,” said a rival coach, who, like other coaches interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the charges against Shipley. “That’s how established he was.”

Some rowers came to consider him their best friend or said that they couldn’t row for anyone else, a former board member said.

One year, the team designed matching T-shirts that read: “Wake up in the morning feeling like Kirk Shipley.” The back featured photos of Shipley and Jesus Christ flexing their biceps.

“He was basically their teacher, their coach, their counselor and their therapist,” said one former Whitman coach. “That’s a lot of time with one man. I think he saw himself as someone very, very important to these kids’ lives. There was no healthy distance there.”

Shipley didn’t extend his tutelage to all. He wrote off the girls he didn’t think were talented, and played favorites, said Jeanette Valdés, a former board member whose daughter rowed until 2021.

But if individual parents complained, as Ravick did in 2018, he dismissed them as disgruntled. And he retained strong support from the board, which Valdés and others said was dominated by four long-serving members who’d had multiple children row for Shipley.

“The parent board seemed very interested in making sure that their kids got into good schools, good universities,” said a former assistant coach at Whitman. They knew Shipley had issues, “but I don’t think the extent of what was happening was known. And I think there was maybe an aspect of wanting to protect the status of the team. There’s that aspect of, ‘Why should I say something if the team’s doing well?’ ”

In its statement to The Post, the board denied being too focused on winning: “We strongly disagree with this suggestion. As with any competitive high school sport, the team strived for success, however the well-being of the rowers is, and always was, the top priority for the board.”

Shipley saw himself as being above the board’s rules, said McLaughlin, 47, the only parent who voted against the coach’s return in August. On the rare occasion that the parents balked at giving Shipley funding for capital expenses, like single scull boats or new shoes, he would pressure them to purchase the items anyway.

“The parents were led to believe that by providing their children with the best equipment and opportunities, they would get the best opportunities to go to a premiere college,” McLaughlin said. “No expense was spared.”

Whitman’s varsity girls team had only become a top performer in recent years. By 2019, the team had become among the fastest in the region. That year, graduates went on to row at Cornell, Tufts, Yale and MIT, among other colleges.

“It served to fuel Shipley’s already pretty strong ego,” said the former Whitman coach. “I think success wasn’t necessarily the healthiest thing for him.”

But the boats didn’t always win — or not at the level that Shipley desired. At the Stotesbury Cup Regatta in May, the top varsity boat received bronze.

The next day, Shipley told the girls that he was ending their season early. In an email, he said that “the margin to victory” was too great to bridge and that they needed to “be close to the winner at Stotesbury to warrant” trips to two other national competitions in May and June.

Their last regatta as high school rowers was over, and they hadn’t even realized it.

“Everyone was so torn up and so sad,” said one of the recent graduates. “They easily could have gone to the next two regattas, and it would’ve been really fun. Maybe they wouldn’t have won — but that’s not everything. [Shipley] was so obsessed with winning. He only took our well-being into account when it benefitted him.”

When the girls confronted Shipley about his decision, Valdés said, he refused to reconsider. So they decided to write a confidential letter to the parent board about their experiences with him — a move that Jenni Main, the incoming president at the time, encouraged.

On June 15, they emailed it to the board.

“After that,” said Valdés, whose daughter signed the letter, “it was like the top blew off the pressure cooker.”

‘Is that the standard?’

Though the girls believed their letter would only be read by the board, it was immediately turned over to Shipley by a few of the longest-serving members.

“We were not aware that the letter was intended to remain confidential,” the board said in its statement to The Post. “It was not labeled as confidential, nor was the request made by the drafters of the letter to keep it confidential. In tone and form, it read as though the athletes intended to go ‘on the record’ with their complaints.”

The parents later apologized to the girls.

Shipley was also given the results of the team’s annual year-end survey. His scores were so low — and the complaints about him so serious — that the nonprofit that tabulated the results warned the board that it risked losing its affiliation with USRowing unless it suspended him.

On June 18 — three days after the girls had sent their email — the board told Shipley that he was being put on leave, pending another investigation. In a letter, they ordered him “not to have any contact with any current or past Walt Whitman Crew athletes.” And they announced that the girls’ summer rowing program, which he coached at the boathouse, would be canceled.

Once again, the board turned to Hernberg, the human resources consultant whose 2018 report had omitted the allegation that Shipley had had a sexual relationship with a rower.

In 2018, she’d suggested “a stronger mission statement” for the team as well as a “rights and responsibilities” code for athletes, parents and coaches. She also recommended that Shipley “discontinue all comments about the athletes, their boyfriends, and their social lives” and do a better job of communicating with the girls about their boat placement.

As Hernberg launched a second investigation, Shipley disregarded the warning not to contact former students. He asked past athletes to rally on his behalf, claiming in an email to them that the program had been hijacked by “unsatisfied rowers.”

He suggested they write to Hernberg about their own experiences, warning that her report could have “pretty far-reaching consequences ... that will determine whether I return next year.”

As news of Shipley’s suspension spread, the seven girls who’d complained about him were attacked by some of their former teammates. They were blamed for threatening Shipley’s career and for the cancellation of the summer program. Other athletes called their note a “revenge letter.”

During team meetings over the summer, a few parents referred to the letter writers as bitter rowers who couldn’t handle the competitive atmosphere. And when two board members met with Shipley in July to discuss his potential return to coaching, he picked apart the girls who’d signed the letter, labeling some of them “mentally ill,” one parent said.

When Hernberg’s report was finished in July, its main points echoed those she’d made in 2018. Again, Hernberg specified, there was “no indication of physical or sexual misconduct.”

“That was their battle cry, if you will,” McLaughlin said. “It got to the point where I asked, ‘Is that the standard? Do you have to have sexual misconduct in order to lose your job? And it doesn’t matter what else you do?' ”

On Aug. 4, as the board was debating Shipley’s fate, the woman who graduated in 2018 contacted police to report sexual abuse.

The board was unaware of the police investigation when it voted 13-to-1 to renew Shipley’s contract for another year, said McLaughlin, who was so frustrated by the decision that he resigned and pulled his two younger children from the program.

On Aug. 16, the board sent an email to the Whitman rowing community to explain its decision to bring Shipley back, acknowledging a pervasive “fear of disparagement and retaliation against athletes for speaking up or when their parents are critical,” “insufficient respect of boundaries between coach and athletes” and “a perceived culture of favoritism.”

The board promised it would make changes “to protect our athletes, improve our coach oversight and support, and strengthen our culture. We have discussed these matters with Coach Shipley. Our assessment is that he is both willing and able to partner successfully with the Board in leading these changes.”

Read the letter from the parent board announcing Shipley’s contract was being renewed

Shipley was told he needed to write an apology letter.

Within days, though, the board was writing its own apology letter. Their support for Shipley, who faces a prison sentence if he is convicted of the charges against him, had finally come to an end.

‘Rumors of our demise’

Above the Charles River in Boston, the sky turned cantaloupe.

It was early morning in late October. Whitman’s season had been canceled in the turmoil after Shipley’s arrest. Many of the girls were now rowing for the Thompson Boat Center, and on a chilly fall day, they were racing in one of the first major regattas of the season. This time, they were without the man who’d always been their coach.

A grand jury in the District was investigating Shipley, who’d been released while his case winds through the court system. Recently, he’d been spotted near the Swedish Embassy, not far from the boat center, which had shaken some of Whitman’s rowers so much that the board sent out a reassuring email: “It appeared he was there to drop something off at a nearby building and, as far as we know, he had no contact with anyone from the team.”

The girls he’d been accused of betraying were coaching themselves. In September, they posted a series of pictures to the crew team’s Instagram. In the photos, rowing machines are lined up in the garage of a brick home. Some girls are bent over the ergs, completing their 6-kilometer test, while others shout encouragement.

The caption read: “Rumors of our demise are... premature.”

Now, on the waters separating Boston from Cambridge, they piled into their boats and gripped their oars. They were ready to compete.

Dan Morse contributed to this report.

Story editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Miller, copy editing by Thomas Heleba, design by Brianna Schroer.

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