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A football locker room, a broomstick and a sex assault case roil a school

Damascus High School in Maryland, with 1,300 students and a strong football program, has been rocked by allegations of sexual assault against members of the junior-varsity football team. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Officials at Damascus High School in suburban Maryland waited more than 12 hours to tell police about credible allegations that several junior-varsity football players pinned a teammate in a locker room, pulled his pants down and sexually assaulted him with a broomstick, interviews and documents show.

The school officials held off despite discussing among themselves in a group text message on Oct. 31 — seen by The Washington Post — the names of a victim and three possible assailants.

Instead of calling police, they launched their own inquiry and on Nov. 1, plucked students one-by-one from class as they questioned suspects, learned the names of three more victims and took statements from those boys.

None of the victims was sent for medical care. All went back to classes without their parents being called.

The lag appears glaring for the nationally regarded Montgomery County school system, which operates under a formal agreement with police to report immediately any sexual assaults to the department’s special victims unit for investigation.

“It’s absolutely absurd what the school did,” James Humphries, a retired commander of the Montgomery County police special victims unit said in an interview. He is not part of the current case, but during his nine years with the unit, he helped teach principals about when to report incidents. “They’re not trained to do these types of investigations and these types of interviews.”

The four victims were 14 or 15.

Their accused attackers, all 15. Each faces a count of rape and three counts of attempted rape, a crime that in Maryland includes nonconsensual acts that use an object.

The case rocked the high school of 1,300 students and the football-proud community of Damascus, where children flock to youth football teams, go on to the JV squad, and dream of playing for the powerhouse varsity, which had a 51-game winning streak going when the locker room incident broke and a record that included three recent state titles in a row.

The events at the core of the criminal cases occurred before the start of practice on the afternoon before the JV’s last game of the year.

The Post corroborated text messages and detailed statements made by administrators, students and their families during hours of questioning by detectives, and interviewed more than 15 people involved in the case, to add extensive new accounts beyond the information already in public court and police filings.

Those new accounts say as many as 10 JV players watched through a window into the freshman area of the locker room as the attacks unfolded and victims screamed as their attackers laughed.

“There were lots of bystanders,” one of the victims wrote in a statement at school. “They did not help.”

Talk of “brooming” was widespread among the 2018 JV team, sometimes conveyed in a joking way and other times as a threat, detectives were told in interviews.

“Everyone heard of this thing called the broom,” one freshman told detectives, saying that, in the minutes before their practice on Halloween, the freshman players worried the sophomores were about to attack.

“This time it was like going to the next level,” another player told detectives. “They just took it too far with like the pants thing and stuff. Usually they don’t pull down their pants and do it.”

As prosecutors have described it, attackers pushed the broom handle several times through one boy’s underwear and into him, two others were pinned and jabbed in their buttocks with the handle, and teammates knocked the fourth victim to the ground and stomped on him as he fought off the broom.

After talking to the boys, detectives had three of them taken to hospitals to be checked for injuries.

Montgomery County prosecutors have publicly said they are investigating whether there were previous brooming assaults at Damascus.

Their inquiry also involves use of a grand jury, which works behind closed doors, to answer that question, according to three people with direct knowledge of the proceeding.

Recent court filings refer to at least three broomstick assaults in the Damascus locker room during the 2017 football season. None was described as being as violent as the reported 2018 attacks, and players said they didn’t report them to coaches or school administrators.

According to school system documents reviewed by The Post, school officials were made aware of one such allegation in 2017 but found it to be unsubstantiated.

Damascus Principal Casey Crouse and other administrators declined requests from The Post for interviews.

But in a March 21 email sent to school parents, Crouse said she anticipated a news story and briefly described how the school reacted after learning about what she said was a “behavior of concern” on Oct. 31. She wrote that she and others took actions “based on the information we had at the time” and adjusted appropriately as they learned more.

“The well-being of the students involved remained our highest priority,” Crouse said.

School system officials declined to reply to detailed questions, citing the ongoing court proceedings, but said in a statement that the system is committed to student safety and would thoroughly review how Damascus staff responded to the incident once those finish.

“We believe all coaches and staff have been, and continue to be, forthcoming and fully cooperative with law enforcement during their investigation into this serious matter,” said school spokesman Derek Turner.

* * *

Trick-or-treaters were out on Halloween as upstairs in a two-story home in Damascus, a 15-year-old junior-varsity football player lay crying on his bed.

His father came in and sat next to him.

“Just tell me what happened,” his father recalled saying.

Several minutes passed.

“They gave me the broom,” the boy finally answered.

The 7 p.m. exchange was described during interviews police conducted in the case, with portions also confirmed in recent court filings.

The Post generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault without their consent and, so, also is not naming his parents.

The father left his son’s bedroom and called his son’s coach, Vincent Colbert.

“Three or four boys had held him down before practice” and tried to insert a broomstick, the father said, according to what Colbert told detectives. He told Colbert he didn’t know the names of those involved.

Floored by the allegations, Colbert quickly spoke with the varsity head coach, Eric Wallich.

“We gotta find out more,” Wallich, 47, recalled saying during an interview with detectives.

Colbert texted his JV team leaders.

“I need to know if something happened today in the locker room,” as he described his texts to detectives. “I need to know now. I need names.”

He pressed harder in his texts. “I will forfeit the game right now if I don’t get people getting back to me right now. This is serious.”

Players on the team dove into a Snapchat group conversation, with at least one victim watching the exchanges as a now-accused attacker wrote: “Don’t rat me out,” according to prosecutors.

Others got back to their coach with the names of possible assailants.

Colbert reached one who admitted to being part of the assault, saying he’d picked up the broom and “was poking him with it,” according to police records.

“It’s kind of a tradition,” the player added, according to Colbert’s account to detectives.

The JV coach said he called the father back twice, at one point letting him know where he thought the case was heading. “The police are going to be involved in this,” he told the father.

He also asked if he could speak with his player, who came to the phone.

“I’m so sorry this happened,” Colbert told him.

Colbert, 54, and the JV coach since 2006, is paid under a contract and is not a full-time school system employee. He reported his findings to the varsity coach Wallich, who then contacted the school’s 59-year-old athletic director, Joe Doody, who at about 7:30 p.m. contacted Crouse, the Damascus principal, according to their interviews with police.

“Okay this what I have for sure,” Wallich wrote in a group text to the principal and athletic director shortly before 9 p.m., going on to describe an account of a player pinned and assaulted.

The text he sent identified a victim, a teen who yanked down the victim’s pants, the teen who “was taking a broom and trying to poke” the victim, and another player who likely was involved. Wallich added in the texts that the victim’s father had told the JV coach that kids on the team had been joking to freshman players about the broom earlier in the year.

Crouse asked about the actions of one player and asked about repercussions.

“What is the football consequence?” she texted next.

“Everyone will Be out of the program immediately,” Wallich texted. “The crazy thing is today was their last practice of the year and tomorrow is their last game.”

“End of the season hmmm….” Crouse replied. “Can they be “suspended”at the start of next season???”

“I’m thinking removed from the program for good,” Wallich said.

“Ohhh.....” Crouse responded.

* * *

Early on Nov. 1, Crouse put her investigation into motion by phone — knowing she wouldn’t arrive at Damascus High School until after a previously scheduled off-site meeting, she recounted to detectives.

“We knew we would initiate the investigation in the morning,” she told them.

She told them that about 7 a.m. she called Troy Melott, a uniformed Montgomery County police officer known as a school resource officer and assigned to Damascus as part of a program to have a cop in every high school. Crouse told him her office would be looking into a school incident, which she didn’t detail to him, and asked Melott to look into an unrelated threat at the school.

“I was actually asking him to focus on that first while we gathered statements because we really didn’t know anything,” Crouse would tell detectives.

Crouse, 48, was in her second year as principal at Damascus, after eight years as principal of Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring. She designated an assistant principal, working with the school’s in-house security chief, to lead the internal investigation, she and the assistant principal said to police in separate interviews as they walked through their actions that morning.

School staff removed several suspected assailants from their first classes of the day and asked them to write what they knew on a lined “DHS Student Statement Form.”

“Sophomores were giving freshman the ‘broom,’ which is when they shove the end of a broom into someone’s butt,” one 15-year-old began, his statement shows, going on to name three players he said had been attacked.

A short time later, school administrators learned the name of a fourth victim.

The in-school questioning was expanding, and written statements from 11 students started to pile up.

In reply to questions from The Post about that morning, Turner, the spokesman, said in a statement that staff “first engaged law enforcement through the School Resource Officer (SRO) around 7 a.m. on November 1 and subsequently engaged with the Montgomery County Police Special Victims Investigation Division as new details emerged.” Turner declined to give further details of those communications, noting the continuing court cases.

The Post sent emails and delivered letters to Damascus’s principal, assistant principal, athletic director and varsity football coach seeking interviews. The four responded through Turner, stating the school system’s comments speak for them.

The JV coach, Colbert, referred questions to Rockville attorney Victor Del Pino.

“He’s devastated by this,” Del Pino said.

Colbert felt it was his duty to find out if what the father was saying was true, the attorney added, and pass the information on to his superiors.

“There was never any attempt or thought on Vinny’s part of, ‘Oh, let’s protect Damascus football,’ ” Del Pino said.

* * *

As school administrators took statements from JV players, it became clear the attackers had gone from one victim to the next.

The assistant principal heading the investigation, Adam Saltzman, approached the sworn police officer assigned to the school shortly before 9 a.m.

Saltzman, 37, later recalled the exchange to detectives:

“We’re starting to find out there’s a lot more people involved,” Saltzman told the officer. “I’m probably going to bring you in. We’re getting statements right now. I haven’t heard from the other students, but it seems like this is becoming a bigger deal.”

In his interview with police investigators, Melott said it was after speaking with Saltzman that he called his supervisors at the county’s Germantown police station, saying, “ This is above my head to handle and that I think SVID needs to come out,” referring to the special victims unit.

The supervisors sent patrol officers to the school and conveyed what Melott had said to the special victims unit in Rockville, according to Capt. Tom Jordan, a Montgomery County police spokesman.

At the school, administrators continued gathering written accounts from players, according to the times listed atop the student statements.

And by 10:15 a.m., the head football coach, Wallich, had talked to three of the victims who were in the class he was teaching. He spoke to each, saying he was sorry and asking them what had happened.

One boy told him several teammates tried to insert the broom, Wallich said to detectives.

Wallich asked him who was involved but got only two names.

“I could tell he was kind of holding back,” the coach later told the detectives, saying he pursued the questioning because “I didn’t want to hide anything. I just wanted to literally bring everything out.”

It was also clear the reported attacks had occurred during a daily hour-long wait before practice when some players’ recent rowdy behavior had prompted one teacher to complain to school security: “Last week they were out of control.”

In a school office, the accounts written by the teens were spread across a table.

“I tried my best to fight my way out of the locker-room, but it was like ten people and I was getting punched in the process,” one player wrote. “I went to the ground but squeezed my legs to try to avoid the broom.”

With the principal back at school from her off-site meeting, she and other administrators were becoming convinced the police should take over.

“Besides one other action,” Crouse, the principal, said later to detectives, “we stood down.”

Just after 11 a.m., her office summoned the JV team over the school intercom for a meeting. At least three victims were among the group who heard the principal speak, according to accounts given to police and attorneys who represent the victims and their families.

“We said, ‘There’s an allegation of hazing,’ ” the principal told detectives, “and an investigation is being conducted, and as a result, the game cannot be played today.”

Crouse spoke harshly — for which she later apologized to team parents — as she said the team’s season was over.

“At lunch everybody was mad because the game was cancelled,” a 14-year-old victim told police.

* * *

Experienced sex assault investigators took control of the investigation at 11:20 a.m. Nov. 1.

The detectives who arrived at Damascus were trained in how to preserve evidence if any was left in the locker room, question victims who might be traumatized and interrogate suspects who might be hedging.

But they were coming in after the school’s inquiry.

They looked over the statements taken from students. Only one boy said he was an attacker.

The detectives reached the victims — who all were still at school — and with the permission of their parents, drove the boys to the detectives’ offices.

The boys were led into interview rooms decked out like dens, with soft chairs and sofas, and the detectives began to draw out information in detailed exchanges corroborated by The Post.

“There’s nothing you’re going to say that’s going to make me judge you,” an investigator told the first boy interviewed. “There’s nothing you’re going to say that can get you in trouble with me. . . . Trust me, I’ve heard just about everything.”

Her initial question was open-ended. “Why don’t you start, and kind of tell me what’s going on?”

The teen walked her through what he said happened to him.

“Did they say anything?” she asked at one point.

“No, they were just laughing,” the boy said.

“Did you say anything?”

“I was just yelling: ‘Let me go.’ ”

In a nearby room, detectives began speaking with another victim, asking what his favorite subject was. “Math,” he said. “I like to deal with numbers.”

Soon he was describing being thrown to the ground and stomped, and fending off the broom. “I got mad and started crying,” he said. “I cooled down outside.”

When another of the young victims indicated he felt humiliated by his teammates, detectives tried to help him reset his view.

“Here’s the deal,” one told him. “They are trying to make it seem like, ‘Oh, we’re family and we’re doing this because it’s tradition,’ ” she said. “This is not something that should be happening. And it’s OK not to feel good about it. It’s OK not to want it to happen to you.”

Detectives also spoke to school administrators.

The principal, Crouse, told investigators she had only limited information the night of Oct. 31.

They pointed out to her that by then she had learned a player had been poked with a broomstick in a school locker room after teammates forcibly dropped his pants.

“Did you feel that the police needed to be involved at that point?” a detective asked her.

“I didn’t involve the police at that point. I didn’t,” Crouse said.

* * *

Detectives eventually charged six members of the team as juveniles in the attack.

One case was quickly dropped. Another stayed in juvenile court.

In late November, prosecutors filed stronger cases against the remaining four boys and moved their cases to adult court.

The boys’ defense attorneys, in turn, quickly requested the cases be moved back to juvenile court — a venue geared more toward rehabilitation and treatment, with punishment often imposed as probation. All four prevailed, and the cases are back in juvenile court, where records are sealed and proceedings often are closed to the public. The move will greatly diminish any public airing of how school and police officials first responded to the allegations.

The victims continue trying to cope with what happened.

Thomas DeGonia, a Rockville attorney for two of the families, said they want to know about the initial thinking of coaches and administrators on Oct. 31.

Billy Murphy, a Baltimore attorney who represents a third victim, questions why the school took a statement from a victim without his parents being notified.

In an email to the Damascus High School community at 1:16 p.m. Nov. 1, the principal described the case as possible hazing.

“Today, my administration was informed of allegations of hazing by members of the junior varsity football team against their fellow team members,” Crouse wrote. “These allegations are being investigated” by county police. “At this time, the allegations are unrelated to the varsity football team.”

The first reaction from the school — handling it as a school discipline issue rather than bringing in the police — made it more difficult for the teens to realize the magnitude of what had happened to them, DeGonia said.

Humphries, the retired commander of the Special Victims Investigations Division, agrees.

“These were 14-year-old boys traumatized in front of their teammates through no fault of their own. The last message they needed to be hearing, even inadvertently, was that this wasn’t incredibly serious,” Humphries said.

DeGonia represents two victims he said were present at the team meeting called by the principal. They sensed she was criticizing all the players present, including the pair of boys “who felt like they were being blamed along with everyone else,” DeGonia said.

He criticized the lack of supervision at school: “You wouldn’t leave a bunch of 15-year-old boys unsupervised for an hour in a chemistry lab. Why would you want a bunch of 15-year-old boys unsupervised who were getting ready for football practice?” he asked.

The administrators’ failure to contact police Halloween night or detectives as school opened the morning of Nov. 1 appears at odds with signed agreements between the schools and county police. Sexual assaults and rapes are listed among nine types of critical incidents to be immediately reported and turned over to the police.

They are also the only category with an enhanced reporting requirement: Schools must specifically call into the Special Victims Investigations Division, which handles sexual assault, abuse or neglect against victims 17 or younger.

Police officials declined to comment on the school system’s handling of the case. Humphries said that he could not speak for the department but that, in his experience, what school officials heard Oct. 31 from the father of the player was a substantive, clear allegation of a sexual assault.

The delay in alerting police also runs counter to years of efforts to change school culture so that any suspicion of sexual abuse at school is quickly reported to authorities, following a spate of school cases, said Jennifer Alvaro, a longtime advocate on issues of sexual abuse prevention who has pushed for better policies in Montgomery.

A similar urgency is crucial amid allegations of sexual assault by students, which should be handled by trained professionals, she said, and schools should never launch their own investigations.

“They say they’re training people to immediately report,” she added. “But clearly that’s not happening.”

* * *

The fallout in Damascus continues.

Parents from the junior-varsity football team pressed for a meeting with school officials, yet some left the Dec. 18 session frustrated by a lack of answers and no clear signal of how to prevent a recurrence.

Montgomery Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said the system began a “proactive effort” in November to make sure students know how to respond to “any hint” of hazing or violence tied to sports teams or other school organizations.

School officials said prosecutors gave the school system the go-ahead in January to examine how Damascus students were supervised after school on Oct. 31. They also said they have tightened supervision procedures, adding a requirement that coaches and activity sponsors file more formal supervision plans with their schools to avoid gaps in monitoring.

The county’s top prosecutor has consistently described the incidents as violent sexual assaults and recently praised the victims’ cooperation.

“When you’re 15 or 14 years old, and something like this happened to you and you’re a young boy . . .” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said, pausing to collect his words. “I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do what we’re asking some of these young kids to do.”

After the incident and public charges, victims and their families had to weigh whether to stay at Damascus or transfer.

Jerry Hyatt, a Gaithersburg attorney who represents a student who stayed, said the teen’s parents continue to question how closely the school monitored the JV team before the assaults and the decision to pursue an in-house investigation immediately after the assaults. In the months that followed, those parents said the school has been attentive in its concern for their son and they “appreciate what is happening now,” Hyatt said.

But the impact has been overwhelming.

At least two of the victims are in therapy, prosecutors said in court, where they also read statements from the boys about their emotional struggles.

One teen described his life as shattered after he “was raped with a dirty broomstick in front of his teammates, by his own teammates.”

Another wrote that he cannot shake the sense that everyone looks at him differently or somehow knows, “I am the kid who got the broom.”

Roman Stubbs and Morgan Smith contributed to this report.

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