The U.S. Department of Education is investigating a Fairfax County school’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against a former coach of the girls’ basketball team.
A parent of one of the players filed a complaint with the Department of Education in July that accused administrators at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke of failing to properly investigate accusations leveled against the former varsity coach, who parted ways with the school district last year.
The parent, William Park, accused the school district of violating federal, state and local regulations, and doing “nothing to protect the girls.”
“I just want a full, objective and impartial investigation,” Park said. “The amount of emails and evidence we have is staggering.”
School administrators and district officials, according to the complaint, allowed the coach, John Giannelli, to “sexually harass, bully, verbally and physically abuse multiple teenage female players” during his three years at the school. Players accused Giannelli of remarking on team members’ sexual activities and their bodies.
Giannelli denies the allegations and said he retired from coaching because of travel demands.
The Office for Civil Rights wrote in a November letter to Park that it had launched an investigation, according to a copy of the letter Park provided.
An Education Department spokesman confirmed the agency began an investigation Nov. 2 that involved alleged sexual harassment in the Fairfax school district but declined to identify schools or people involved because of federal privacy laws.
The Office for Civil Rights enforces federal Title IX regulations, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in programs and activities that receive Department of Education funding.
John Torre, Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman, said in a statement that the district “takes seriously any and all allegations of sexual harassment, bullying or other allegations of inappropriate behavior reported by staff or students.”
The Lake Braddock coach, whom Torre did not identify by name but who was identified in Park’s complaint and in earlier coverage by The Washington Post, was removed from the school system in February 2016 and has not worked for the district since, he said.
The district’s account of Giannelli’s departure conflicts with a version of events provided by parents, who say the coach resigned in March 2016.
Park provided an email from a former activities director to another parent indicating that Giannelli resigned in March.
The federal investigation is the latest in a tangled saga that has stretched two years, since December 2015 when a complaint was first made, ensnaring coaches, administrators, parents and players.
Parents alleged that their daughters were subjected to offensive behavior for more than two months after complaints were raised because school administrators did not promptly or adequately address allegations against Giannelli.
The school district conducted an investigation that arose from a formal complaint parents filed about the district’s handling of the allegations.
The district concluded the coach engaged in “improper conduct” but that parents’ complaints about the district’s handling of the allegations were “without merit,” according to a July 2017 summary of the findings signed by Superintendent Scott Brabrand and obtained by The Post.
Giannelli’s departure did little to allay concerns about what Park regards as a systemic failing.
Park alleged school system investigators did not conduct a thorough investigation. The school system, he said, failed to interview all the players on the team.
Three basketball players were pulled from class in June 2016 and questioned by a man who said he was with human resources, said Kathy Taylor, the mother of one of the players who was questioned. The students were not told if the interview was part of a formal investigation, said Taylor, who added that she learned of the interview in a phone call as it was happening.
In an email, Giannelli said he was “done talking about this.” He said the school district never spoke with him when a “so-called investigation” took place.
“I never had to deal with something this crazy in my 33 years of coaching,” Giannelli said.
In the federal complaint, Park requested the agency review the conduct of more than a dozen current and former Fairfax school officials.
Park alleged that Lake Braddock principal David F. Thomas and the former director of student activities, Michael Clark, violated federal and state laws by failing to investigate the allegations and permitting the coach to resign.
Clark, who was placed on leave after a school district investigation and later retired, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Thomas also did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The Department of Education inquiry is not the only outside investigation stemming from the harassment allegations at Lake Braddock.
Jim Poythress, a physical education teacher and the school’s longtime football coach, filed a whistleblower complaint in May with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming he was removed from both jobs as retribution for being named as a witness in the parents’ complaint.
A player that the team designated to meet with Clark in December 2015 described multiple occasions in which Giannelli insinuated the players engaged in oral sex and commented on players’ breasts and buttocks, the athlete told the Post earlier this year.
In routine surveys distributed to families of athletes after the sports season, parents outlined sexual harassment claims. One survey response described Giannelli “making sexual references to a player who was blowing up a balloon, suggesting she had her lips on a condom.”
Another survey read, in part: “Two teammates were discussing the size of leg rollers (to work out cramps), and the head coach made reference to the girls comparing the size of their boyfriends’ penis. And then last year when a player was stretching out her leg, the coach commented on her ‘swollen’ chest instead of her swollen knee.”