The parents of three Maryland teenagers who were sexually assaulted in 2018 by teammates on Thursday sued suburban Montgomery County school officials, asserting they ignored warnings about a ritual at Damascus High School known as "brooming" while placing outsized importance on the school's vaunted football program.
The litigation, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, specifically accused school officials of neglectfully giving junior-varsity players unsupervised access to the football locker room for up to an hour a day - from the end of school at 2:30 p.m. to the start of their practice at 3:30 p.m. That lack of supervision was inexcusable, the lawsuit asserts, in part because at least one coach had been told of an alleged broomstick assault a year earlier but brushed off parents' concerns as "just rumours."
The officials also ignored the threat posed by one player - ultimately charged in the 2018 attacks - who had incurred approximately 12 school suspensions in previous years and been accused of fighting, sexual harassment and other misbehavior, according to litigation. When school officials did learn about the broomstick assaults, they downplayed what happened, delayed calling the 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 "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.
A spokesman for the school system said Thursday morning officials will review the lawsuit before commenting.
But during a criminal investigation of the 2018 attacks, detectives at the Montgomery County Police Department asked two coaches and two school administrators if they'd 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, about 35 miles northwest of here. At the time, the varsity teams had the longest active winning streak in the nation, 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 use an object. The cases were transferred to juvenile court, where last year the four pleaded guilty to being involved in the assaults.
The lawsuit also raises more questions about what coaches and administrators knew of what the complaint calls a "culture of allowing student-athletes to victimise other student-athletes" that was purportedly discussed among parents at parties. The litigation alleges 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.
The litigation, filed in two separate lawsuits, seeks unspecified money damages.
"The victims and their families have been devastated, and it all could have been avoided if the defendants had simply acted responsibly," said Timothy Maloney, another attorney who filed the litigation.
Over the last year, school officials have addressed several of the subjects covered in the lawsuit and investigated supervision and reporting issues at Damascus.
On May 14, 2019, Superintendent Jack Smith acknowledged that on the afternoon of Oct. 31, 2018, 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 was 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 was unacceptable."
He and others also have 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' 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 others 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 Thursday name as defendants the Montgomery County Board of Education, or essentially the school system as a whole, as well as four individuals: Crouse, Wallich, Colbert and Doody.
Crouse and Wallich could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday morning. 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."
"Incidents like this occurred on a weekly basis," the lawsuits claim. "Many freshman football players were too afraid to change clothes in the locker room after practices and/or games for fear of being broomed."
Among the starkest, specific allegations is one levelled 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," the attorney, Victor Del Pino, said.
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 also was 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 at 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. 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 prior to them speaking 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 approximately 25 players to a meeting.
"None of the attackers attended this meeting with Principal Crouse," the lawsuit 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.' "