Dozens of students from Washington’s prestigious Gonzaga College High School, on a spiritual retreat in southern Maryland, ransacked a cabin and an unoccupied home, shattering windows and cabinets, punching holes in walls, throwing a toilet into a yard and destroying property throughout both dwellings, according to several Gonzaga employees who were told of the incidents at a staff meeting at the school.
A number of the students pulled a refrigerator from the cabin and pushed it over a cliff into the Potomac River, which runs along the property, the employees said.
The acts took place during afternoon breaks at the retreat on two consecutive days, Jan. 30 and 31. Approximately 40 to 50 students, mostly juniors but some seniors, took part in the vandalism, according to the employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
The vandalized home and cabin are on property close to the Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner, Md, in Charles County, about 10 miles south of La Plata. The location is the site of three-day retreats for Gonzaga students to explore their faith and bond with one another, a person familiar with the retreat told the Post.
In a statement sent Thursday to The Washington Post, Gonzaga’s president, the Rev. Stephen W. Planning, acknowledged the incident.
“At Gonzaga, we take extremely seriously any disciplinary issues concerning our students,” he said. “This incident, which occurred off campus at a rural property during a retreat, was particularly troubling as it is deeply inconsistent with our core values. From the moment this happened, we have worked closely with the property owners, with the students involved, their families, and our faculty and staff. Our goal is for our school community to take responsibility for this matter, to make amends, and to help our school community learn from our mistakes.”
According to the Charles County sheriff’s office, there were no reports made of property damage or vandalism by the owners of the cabin and house. But police were called to the retreat on Jan. 31 to respond to a missing persons report. Soon after they arrived, the student who was thought to be missing was found in his dorm room. Police were told that students were in trouble for an incident, but were not told about any vandalism, said Diane I. Richardson, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.
At the staff meeting, according to at least three people who were there, Headmaster Thomas K. Every II described the incidents and showed photographs and a short video displaying the damage. The front window of a car in the house’s garage had been smashed. There were gaping holes on the exterior walls of the two-story house and shingles had been tossed off the building. No pictures or video were shown of the damage to the cabin, but it was described as “complete destruction” by one attendee. Windows were shattered, cabinets torn from walls and doors ripped off their frames.
Approximately a dozen or so students are reported to have been involved in the destruction of the cabin. A much larger group of 40 to 50 students were at the house when it was being vandalized, though it is unclear how many were actively taking part.
According to those who heard Every’s account, some of the students may have believed the properties were abandoned. Every told the staff that the owner of the house arrived Thursday afternoon, while the students were still there. The owner then went to the retreat center to report what had happened. Chaperones, including faculty and staff, contacted Gonzaga administrators, some of whom immediately drove to the center. The remainder of the retreat was canceled and the following morning the students returned to Washington.
It is not known what financial compensation Gonzaga agreed to for the property damage. The owners have not been publicly identified. A woman at the property declined to comment, saying it was a private matter.
The incident has rocked the Gonzaga campus, on I Street NW, just north of Union Station. The all-male Jesuit high school, founded in 1821, has a long history as a leading academic institution in Washington, as well as one that encourages students to address social justice issues. The campus is home to the Father McKenna Center, which provides meals and assistance to men who are poor and homeless, and students are involved in its daily operation.
The description of actions by the students at the retreat center are shocking, one staff member said.
“It was far worse than we had heard in rumors, far worse than what we had ever thought possible” the person said. “There were a lot of gasps when we were shown photos and the video. We had only heard vandalism and broken windows and it was much more than that. It’s an understatement to say we were shocked and disgusted.”
It was unclear how the students will be punished.
Following The Post’s request for comment on the incident Thursday, Planning, the school’s president, sent an email to all Gonzaga families.
“As some of you know, during a break period, there was a serious incident of student vandalism near the retreat house,” Planning wrote. He went on to say that “each student has been issued consequences commensurate with his involvement.” Those consequences, he wrote, “mark only the beginning of a longer process for students to reflect on their actions, learn from their mistakes, and make amends consistent with our Christian ideals.”
Planning ended his email to the school community with a message.
“This incident is an opportunity for all Gonzaga families to have meaningful conversations with their sons about the consequences of bad decisions,” he wrote. “My hope is that ultimately our community can grow stronger in its resolve to always model the ideals in which we believe.”
Rachel Chason contributed to this report.