A second high school in the Maryland suburbs has confronted an alleged episode of hazing involving football players, officials confirmed — as administrators contend with continuing concern about alleged sexual assaults by players at Damascus High, a football powerhouse.
The new case in Montgomery County involved students at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. Capt. Paul Starks, a Montgomery County police spokesman, said the agency investigated allegations of unwanted sexual touching among football players at the school on Sept. 18.
Detectives learned there were multiple possible suspects and one possible victim.
It was never clear what may have happened and whether the alleged incident amounted to an assault or a sexual assault, according to Starks. Also, the alleged victim did not want to pursue the case, Starks said. No charges were filed.
“These types of investigations are victim-driven,” Starks said.
Montgomery school system spokesman Derek Turner said that disciplinary action was taken against multiple students and that adults were reprimanded for a lack of supervision. Team discussions have since focused on the harm of such behavior and the importance of respect and sportsmanship.
“The team had a long conversation and continues to engage around this issue,” Turner said.
The details come as Damascus High, on the northern side of the county, reels from allegations that five players on the junior varsity squad attacked four of their teammates in the locker room the day before the season’s last game.
The Damascus players were allegedly assaulted with a broomstick after the lights were turned off. One said that he told the assailants to stop and that they said the practice was “a tradition,” according to a police report obtained by The Washington Post. The player said he had heard about “brooming” in middle school and considered it a myth.
Three teenagers have each been charged with two counts of attempted second-degree rape and two counts of second-degree rape. A fourth teenager has been charged with three counts of second-degree rape. That charge, in Maryland, covers a range of nonconsensual acts that can involve the use of an object. A fifth teen faces a single count of attempted second-degree rape. All are charged in juvenile court.
Montgomery school officials say they have not been told of any history or established ritual with broomsticks in the school’s football program. They said that after police complete their investigation, they will “look at every part of the football team and how it relates to the alleged incident.”
The charges have been especially troubling in a place that some supporters call “Maryland’s best football town.” Damascus High’s varsity team has won three state championships in a row and started this year’s playoff run with a victory Friday.
Montgomery Schools Superintendent Jack R. Smith said in a message to the school community Friday that police have not linked the varsity team with the alleged crimes, so its games will go on as scheduled. If any connection surfaces, he said, disciplinary action or retroactive penalties could be imposed.
Hazing is not uncommon in high school sports programs, with their close bonds and power differences between older and younger players, said Clark Power, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Notre Dame who has studied hazing and founded the nonprofit Play Like a Champion Today to help address a range of issues in youth sports.
The kind of sexual assaults alleged in the Damascus case are much less common, he said, but not unheard of.
“You can’t underestimate how damaging this is,” he said. “This is very, very serious, and the effects continue throughout a lifetime.”
For that reason, he said, it’s important that coaches are educated about the issue, focus on team culture and work with team members to set clear expectations. Most incidents go unreported, he said.
“People feel ashamed and humiliated by this experience, and they are reluctant to go to adults,” he said.
Parents say the allegations have been anguishing for the Damascus community.
Alaina Dahlin, a Damascus parent who served for years as a PTA leader, described the charges as horrifying and wondered whether locker room procedures have changed — and whether coaches or other adults are doing more to supervise players in that setting.
“Clearly, some sort of oversight needs to be done,” she said.
She also raised concerns about holding adults responsible “for what happened at a school function” and called for an honest assessment of what happened to answer community questions and ensure that hazing doesn’t happen again. “They need to be transparent and thorough,” she said.
Turner, the schools spokesman, said that police are continuing to investigate at Damascus High and that the varsity coach remains in his post. The junior-varsity coach, who is not a school system employee, is done for the season; neither has been disciplined so far, he said.
In the aftermath of the Damascus allegations, the school system is looking into whether hazing and bullying are a broad problem in Montgomery, the largest district in Maryland, with 25 high schools. Officials have asked coaches, athletic directors and student-activity sponsors to start discussions to learn more about student experiences and to assess the prevalence of any problems.
Hazing incidents have happened sporadically in Montgomery, according to Turner, but none has risen to the level of the violence alleged at Damascus High.
Across the county, parents have voiced concerns about the culture of athletic programs, the training of coaches and the adequacy of safeguards.
Some have criticized the school system’s use of the word “hazing,” saying it should acknowledge in blunt terms what is alleged at Damascus: sexual assault.
Lyda Astrove, a longtime education advocate, said an anti-hazing video the school system recently released failed to convey “the seriousness and horribleness of the alleged crimes that took place on school property.”
She called on the superintendent to hold a community meeting to answer safety questions and “itemize specific procedures they are putting in place to make sure these type of acts never happen again.”
Turner defended the word “hazing,” saying that it “is not a soft term in our world” and that hazing incidents have led to injury or death across the country.
Several PTA leaders said they are hoping to spark greater interest in prevention programs, including Coaching Boys into Men, already used by a handful of schools in Montgomery. “I don’t think there’s any reason it shouldn’t be in all schools,” said Gillian Huebner, chair of a countywide PTA subcommittee on school climate and safety.
In recent weeks, the issue has extended beyond Montgomery.
In Loudoun County, Va., students at Tuscarora High School are accused of assaulting an underclassman on the football team after school hours in a locker room in early October. One student was accused of sexual battery, and two others were charged with assault and battery.