The officials also ignored the threat posed by one player — ultimately charged in the Oct. 31, 2018, attacks — who had incurred about 12 school suspensions in previous years and been accused of fighting, sexual harassment and other misbehavior, according to the litigation. When school officials did learn about the broomstick assaults, they played down what happened, delayed calling police and delayed telling the victims’ parents what had happened, according to the legal claims.
“They placed winning above the health and safety of some of their most vulnerable students,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy, part of a group of attorneys representing the families.
The families of the three victims were joined in their claims by the family of a fourth victim, alleged to have been sexually assaulted in the Damascus locker room in 2017 — some 15 months before the other boys were attacked.
In a statement, the school system said it conducted an internal investigation and commissioned an external review after the 2018 incident. The statement also urged the community to “understand that the allegations in any legal complaint will be tested through an extensive process to determine whether they can be proven true.”
“The lawsuits filed today raise a series of additional allegations about prior hazing and sexual assaults — many of which have never been reported to MCPS leadership,” said the statement from school district spokesman Derek Turner. “We trust that the attorneys who filed the lawsuits have shared their allegations with law enforcement. If they have not, we sincerely hope they will immediately share any evidence they may have uncovered so it can be fully vetted, as part of the State’s Attorney’s Office’s ongoing investigation.”
During a criminal investigation of the 2018 attacks, detectives at the Montgomery County Police Department asked two coaches and two school administrators if they had ever heard of previous broomstick assaults. All four said no, according to interviews corroborated by The Washington Post.
The litigation, which has been expected for several months, opens a new chapter in a case that exploded in the fall of 2018 in the football-proud community of Damascus. At the time, the varsity team had a winning streak of 51 games.
Six JV players, all 14 or 15 at the time, were accused of attacking their teammates with a broom before the last day of practice, on Oct. 31. Four of them were indicted as adults on counts of rape and attempted rape, a crime that in Maryland covers nonconsensual acts that involve an object. The cases were transferred to juvenile court, where last year the four pleaded to being involved in the assaults.
The litigation also raises more questions about what coaches and administrators knew of what the complaint calls a “culture of allowing student-athletes to victimize other student-athletes” that was purportedly discussed among parents at parties. It alleges that before 2018, and going back to 2016, there were as many as five sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults, using a broomstick, among junior varsity football players at Damascus.
“Sophomore football players terrorized freshman football players by threatening to, and at times, sodomizing the younger players with a broom,” said Thomas DeGonia, who along with other attorneys representing the families outlined their legal claims at a brief news conference Thursday.
The litigation, filed in two separate lawsuits, seeks unspecified monetary damages.
“The victims and their families have been devastated, and it all could have been avoided if the defendants had simply acted responsibly,” added attorney Timothy Maloney.
Over the past year, school officials have addressed several of the subjects covered in the lawsuits and investigated supervision and reporting issues at Damascus.
On May 14, Superintendent Jack Smith acknowledged in a letter that on the afternoon of the assaults, the football locker room at Damascus was unsupervised for 25 minutes from 2:50 to 3:15 p.m. He pinned responsibility on junior varsity coaches “who were typically responsible for supervision during that time [and] were delayed in their arrival.”
“While there is nothing to suggest the coaches could have reasonably expected a sexual assault to occur in the locker room in the absence of supervision,” Smith said, “the lack of protocols in place to ensure coverage in the locker room is unacceptable.”
He and others have also said that school officials properly notified police of the attacks once they understood what was an evolving picture of what happened. “The well-being of the students involved remained our highest priority,” Casey Crouse, Damascus’s principal at the time of the assaults, wrote in an email to Damascus parents.
Crouse stepped down from her post last year, citing continued negative attention over the case as one factor and taking another job in the school system. Three other staff members also have parted ways with the school or football program.
Joseph Doody, the school’s athletic director at the time of the assaults, and Vincent Colbert, the JV coach, were removed from their posts, according to Smith. The varsity coach, Eric Wallich, resigned last month, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. He still works as a Damascus High teacher, according to the school’s website.
The lawsuits filed name as defendants the Montgomery County Board of Education — or essentially the school system as a whole — as well as Crouse, Wallich, Colbert and Doody.
Crouse and Wallich could not be reached for comment. Colbert and Doody declined to comment.
While the purported assaults do not identify the players involved — a standard practice in legal matters involving teenage victims and suspects — four of the incidents alleged to have occurred before 2018 are described in only vague terms. It is not clear from the litigation if the alleged assailants tried to assault victims with a broomstick after pulling down their pants, or if they attempted to assault victims through their pants.
In one case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys asserted only that the alleged attack may have happened in the 2016 or 2017 season.
But in broader strokes, the two lawsuits filed Thursday claim that by 2018, the practice or threat of “brooming” was widely known among Damascus football players and even some of their parents. At one point, according to the litigation, a football player took a cellphone video of an incident just outside the locker room.
The video, according to the litigation, “shows JV football players grabbing a freshman football player by the arms and escorting him toward another group of JV football players standing nearby, one of whom was holding a broom handle threatening to broom the freshman football player.”
Among the most stark, specific allegations is one leveled directly at Colbert, the JV coach.
The litigation claims that in 2017, an unidentified parent called Colbert and told him that one of his players had been sexually assaulted with a broomstick in the locker room. Colbert “indicated he would notify” Wallich, the head coach of the program, according to the lawsuits.
The officials’ lack of response to the report, according to the litigation, “amounted to deliberate indifference.”
An attorney who represented Colbert last year said at the time he was disappointed the school system had taken actions against his client. “Mr. Colbert hasn’t done anything wrong,” said the attorney, Victor Del Pino.
Beyond Damascus High School, the lawsuits alleged that school system officials knew of two attacks in locker rooms of two nearby high schools. In February 2018, according to the litigation, an athlete at Gaithersburg High School was sexually assaulted by his teammates. Seven months later, an athlete at Seneca Valley High School was also sexually assaulted, according to the litigation.
“That put them on notice that they had problems in locker rooms,” said Murphy, one of the attorneys representing the families.
The litigation does not detail either incident but asserts that school officials “failed to take any action” systemwide to tighten up supervision of athletic teams and locker rooms.
In the hours after the Oct. 31, 2018 attacks, Colbert, Wallich, Doody and Crouse learned at least one player had been assaulted in the locker room by his teammates, according to court records filed earlier in the case. Smith has said they didn’t learn details of how bad the assaults were until the following day, which is when they notified police.
The lawsuits paint a picture of a far less diligent response. They allege that officials delayed telling the parents of the victims and, in delaying calling the police, upended the chance for detectives to preserve crime scene evidence in the locker room and interview both victims and suspects before they spoke with school officials.
“They went completely outside the protocols. They did so to control the investigation and protect the brand,” said Edward Cardona, an attorney representing two of the victims and their families.
The litigation alleges that on Nov. 1, 2018, Crouse, the principal, used the school intercom system to call about 25 players to a meeting.
“None of the attackers attended this meeting with Principal Crouse,” the litigation charges. “During this meeting, Principal Crouse proceeded to condemn and chastise all attending football players, including the victims, as well as witnesses alike. She also accused the team of ‘ruining Coach Colbert’s win streak.’ ”