Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, where a group of parents are angry at school officials. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A tangled and murky saga stemming from complaints of sexual harassment continues to escalate at Lake Braddock Secondary School, with coaches, administrators, players and parents embroiled in a case that began more than 18 months ago and now includes two pending federal legal complaints.

On one side are parents who claim school officials failed to meet Title IX obligations pertaining to the handling of sexual harassment allegations against a former girls’ basketball coach, leaving their daughters subject to offensive behavior for more than two months after a complaint was first raised.

On the other side are current and former school and district officials, who in emails obtained by The Washington Post give varying accounts of when they were made aware of the claims. Clouding the matter is that the parents were unaware of the alleged behavior until the coach already had resigned.

And dragged in from the periphery is Jim Poythress, a physical education teacher and the school’s longtime football coach, who filed a whistleblower complaint May 9 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming school officials removed him from both jobs in retribution for being named as a witness in the parents’ complaint.

At the center is former girls’ basketball coach John Giannelli, who spent four seasons at the Burke school. In a recent telephone interview, Giannelli said he was unaware of any claims made against him and that his resignation was a personal decision. Informed that players claimed he had used sexually suggestive language toward them, he denied doing so.

“I know I didn’t do anything wrong over three years,” he said. “I hope someone does the correct investigation — the county, the police department, anybody — so this gets settled.”

The Post interviewed 25 people familiar with the girls’ basketball team and school district and reviewed more than 2,100 pages of documents obtained through sources and open records requests for this story. The school district withheld 432 pages of public documents because they contained privileged correspondence, student information and personnel information. 

Giannelli owns Fairfax Sportsplex in Springfield, where numerous Fairfax County teams, including Lake Braddock, practice during the offseason. He has coached in Maryland and Virginia for 22 years and became a girls’ basketball coach at Lake Braddock in the fall of 2012, coaching the junior varsity for one season before moving up to become the varsity head coach.

Four players interviewed by The Post said Giannelli, 53, routinely made personal comments that made players uncomfortable throughout his tenure at the school, but the frequency and nature of the remarks intensified during the 2015-16 season. The four players and their parents spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Post does not identify alleged victims of sexual harassment.

“We never knew what he was going to say, whether it was going to be about basketball or something else,” one player said. “It wasn’t something we looked forward to, going to talk to him. It normally wasn’t always about basketball. There was always that tone of discomfort.”

The players said they had not told their parents of Giannelli’s behavior. They met as a team in December 2015 and decided that one of them would take the matter to school officials. On Dec. 18, 2015, the designated player went with a teacher to share the players’ concerns with Director of Student Activities Michael Clark.

In that meeting, the player said, she described to Clark repeatedly and in detail remarks Giannelli had made to and about members of the team, including comments about their sexual activity and bodies, according to accounts of the meeting. She said she described multiple instances during which Giannelli insinuated the players engaged in oral sex and made remarks about players’ breasts and rear ends.

The player drafted a handwritten witness statement during the hour-long meeting and turned it over to Clark, players said. Several team parents said school district officials have declined to provide copies of the statement.

Clark, who declined to speak on the record for this story, citing a nondisclosure agreement, acknowledged the meeting in an email to Lake Braddock Principal David Thomas months later, after his conduct was called into question: “During the afternoon of Dec. 18, 2015 — the same day that the student and the aid (sic) came to see me, I specifically told you that a player had told me that they were claiming that coach G was using inappropriate language toward some of the other girls during practice. . . . We then discussed that I would continue to the monitor the situation.”

Thomas did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story. 

Meanwhile, players said, Giannelli’s behavior continued, and the players heard nothing more from school officials.

“When [the teammate] went and talked to [Clark], she was trying to stand up for younger girls,” one player said. “But when he didn’t do anything, that made a lot of girls who were feeling iffy [about telling someone] go the other way. They were scared to say anything.”

On Feb. 20, 2016, after the conclusion of the season, Giannelli announced to players in a team meeting and to parents over email he would not return to the team the next season. But on March 1, he emailed players and parents asking to be reinstated. Fairfax County coaches are at-will employees on annual contracts.

At this point, players said, they agreed to inform their parents for the first time of the alleged harassment by Giannelli, in the hopes of preventing his return.

“It was hard for me to talk about with my parents, but things didn’t really even happen to me,” one player said. “I said some things to my father, but I didn’t know how to tell him some of the sexual things. I tried, but I couldn’t get the words out. How do you say something like that?”

On March 3, a parent representing the team sent an email to Thomas and Clark requesting a coaching change. However, the email made no mention of the harassment allegations.

Later that day, Clark responded to parents with an email — on which Thomas was copied: “This is the first that I have heard about your frustration with the varsity program.”

He declined to dismiss Giannelli and the next day distributed online surveys to families of winter athletes, a standard procedure at Lake Braddock after a sports season. 

Parents used the surveys to lay out explicitly the claims of sexual harassment.

One survey provided to The Post described Giannelli “making sexual references to a player who was blowing up a balloon, suggesting she had her lips on a condom,” and asking a player who was looking through her purse whether she was “looking for condoms.”

Another survey read in part: “Another time this year 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.”

On March 15, six days after the survey responses were due, Giannelli resigned. He said he left the position willingly and said that Clark did not mention any of the allegations against him when the two met.

“I sat down with Mike and said, ‘As much as it might hurt and I can’t let these girls down, it was too much,’ ” said Giannelli, who added that he first contemplated leaving Lake Braddock because he had moved and was tired of the commute. “It was draining. It was time for me to walk away.”

Feelings between parents and administrators grew increasingly contentious. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Unsatisfying resolution

Giannelli’s departure did not satisfy Lake Braddock parents. In emails to one another, they expressed anger that school and district officials had not followed Fairfax County regulations for reporting sexual harassment and potentially had violated Title IX requirements pertaining to sexual harassment claims. 

Federal guidelines state that if a school knows or reasonably should know about sexual harassment that creates a hostile environment, the school must take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.

In an email, a parent requested that Thomas, the school principal, open a formal investigation into Giannelli that would make other school administrators wary of hiring him in the future.

In his reply to that parent on March 24, 2016, Thomas wrote he had been “aware of the situation with our girls basketball program. It was brought to my attention the first week of March after a parent initiated meeting with the other families in the program.” He wrote Clark was still collecting survey responses, and, “To my knowledge, we didn’t receive any concerns about the program until this parent meeting in March” after the conclusion of the season.

By the end of the month, parents began a series of confrontations with school administrators to urge them to take Giannelli’s behavior more seriously.

In an April 2 email to Thomas, a parent wrote, “I’m sure you are aware of Coach Giannelli’s . . . degrading sexual comments to numerous girls on the varsity basketball team across numerous seasons.”

Thomas wrote to a friend that the parents’ desired inquiry into Giannelli “is turning into a witch hunt for a coach that no longer coaches here.”

In an email to a parent dated May 4, Thomas wrote, “I think we are going to have to agree to disagree with the level of action you expect from me and the leadership here at Lake Braddock [regarding the 2015-16 basketball season]. . . . Regarding Coach Giannelli, the school has taken appropriate and final actions.”

On May 6, a parent contacted Eric Brent, the Fairfax County Public Schools Region 4 executive principal who oversees Centreville, Robinson, South County, West Springfield and Lake Braddock high schools and their feeder schools, to request an investigation into Lake Braddock’s handling of Giannelli.

Responding to a follow-up email from the parent, Brent wrote, “Per your request, the investigation initiated on May 6, 2016, was completed on Monday, June 13, 2016.” Giannelli said he was never interviewed as part of the investigation. Parents said their daughters were never interviewed. Brent did not respond to multiple requests to comment.

On June 25, school board member Elizabeth Schultz, who had agreed to keep the parents informed of any personnel developments relating to the case, sent an email saying that Clark had been placed on “approved leave.”

On Sept. 27, Thomas recommended Clark’s dismissal as director of student activities, a recommendation that led to Clark’s email asserting that he had told his boss everything he knew as soon as he knew it.

While on leave, Clark announced he would retire, and the county stopped pursuing his firing. His retirement became official Dec. 31, 2016.

Former Lake Braddock football coach Jim Poythress during a game last season. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Further entanglements

As tensions between parents and administrators escalated, Lake Braddock’s longtime football coach became ensnared in the turmoil. On Nov. 28, 2016, a parent filed a formal complaint with the Fairfax County School Board. The 25-page complaint with 57 enclosures lists one witness outside the basketball program who could testify to Thomas’s knowledge of the harassment allegations: Jim Poythress.

According to the complaint, Poythress witnessed Clark and Thomas discussing the Giannelli situation at the school — once in March 2016 and again in August 2016.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, Poythress, who in 13 seasons had won more games than any football coach in the school’s history, suddenly found himself the subject of uncommon scrutiny from school and district officials.

On Jan. 13, 2017, Karl Kerns, Lake Braddock’s new student activities director, confronted Poythress for letting a college recruiter in the school’s back door instead of requiring him to sign in at the front desk, a violation of protocols that is nonetheless routine practice among local football coaches. Kerns did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

The next school day, Thomas called Poythress to his office, where the pair met with associate principal Laura Waterman for close to 45 minutes. Thomas asked Poythress about his involvement with the group of parents who were voicing displeasure with the handling of complaints about Giannelli’s behavior, people familiar with the case said. Poythress, who had been expecting to be admonished further over letting the recruiter in the back door, was surprised by Thomas’s line of inquiry, people familiar with Poythress’s thinking said.

In an email to Kevin Sills, the FCPS director of equity and employee relations, Eleanor McNulty, Poythress’s sister and attorney, presented a version of the meeting in which she said Thomas told Poythress he was being placed on “Administrative Leave-Unusual Circumstances,” and when Poythress asked whether this was because of the door access issue, Thomas replied, “This isn’t about the door. It is about whether I can trust you.”

Poythress returned to Lake Braddock the next day to turn in his keys to the building. Over the weeks that followed, he continued to be questioned by district officials over matters unrelated to the Giannelli case, including additional inquiries regarding the improper door access and two incidents in which he used profane language toward players during the previous football season, neither of which he had disputed and both of which had appeared to have been resolved earlier. One of the language incidents was later categorized as a “sexual harassment” investigation.

In a March 7, 2017, meeting involving Poythress, Sills and FCPS investigators, Sills asked Poythress to sign an agreement in which the coach would admit to violating the school district’s sexual harassment policy and the county would allow Poythress to transfer the next academic year to another school where a football coaching job was available, according to people with knowledge of the meeting. The agreement also prevented Poythress from publicly discussing all matters related to the case. Sills did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

Poythress refused to sign the agreement, and Sills then threatened to fire him unless he did, according to people with knowledge of the meeting. Poythress then called McNulty, who over the phone negotiated amendments to the agreement — mainly, removing any admission of rules violations — at which point Poythress agreed to sign it.

In a subsequent email to Sills, McNulty characterized these investigations and the leave placement as “reprisal for my brother’s being named as a potential witness by an LBSS parent in his quest for answers to questions . . . in a matter unrelated to my brother.”

In April, while still on leave, Poythress was transferred to West Potomac High in Alexandria, then Mountain View Alternative High in Centreville. Next school year, he will teach physical education and health at Edison High in Alexandria but will not be the head football coach.

In March of this year, having received no response from the Fairfax County School Board, the parent took the complaint to the Civil Rights Office at the Department of Education. Before deciding whether to accept the case, that office requires a report from Fairfax County Public Schools regarding its response to the complaint. Fairfax County officials have told parents that it expects to complete its report by Tuesday.