ROCKVILLE – An external investigation of high schools after the 2018 Damascus High School “brooming” incident shows a positive culture around sports and afterschool activities.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) contracted an external supervision investigation as a result of its internal investigation of monitoring students during after school activities at Damascus High School, the day of the locker room incident, Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith has said.
The law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr (WilmerHale) completed the investigation. Everyone who subscribes to MCPS emails and news releases received a link to the new report on Oct. 7, the day of the press conference, from MCPS.
The firm spoke with teachers, school staff, parents and students at five high schools for the investigation. The firm also spoke with national experts and members of the MCPS community. The external review took a look at how MCPS makes supervisory plans, as well as the timing of the reporting of hazing, bullying and sexual assault, Smith said.
The WilmerHale report included the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) definition of hazing, which is “any humiliating or dangerous activity expected of a student to belong to a group, regardless of their willingness to participate.”
The quality of supervision plans in schools vary across the county, according to the report. The representatives of several schools said they wanted additional security officers to help with supervising students.
Concerns about reporting of incidents involving hazing, bullying or sexual harassment, as well as fears about the degree of afterschool student supervision, sprang from the incident at Damascus High School last year, which garnered widespread attention by the public and by news media. Damascus junior varsity football players faced accusations that they allegedly sodomized teammates with a wooden broomstick, a practice the suspects and alleged victims called “brooming,” in the locker room before practice on Oct. 31, 2018. The outcomes of the suspects’ cases have not been made public, because Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Steven Salant ruled to transfer their cases to juvenile court.
Smith said WilmerHale reported there are gaps in student understanding of the degrees of acceptable behavior, which could cause them not to report incidents.
“WilmerHale said (…) that students often don’t know when something (a behavior) goes from good-natured kidding to hazing, and they also don’t know when something can move from hazing and that kind of inappropriate behavior to something really inappropriate and bad,” said Smith.
Smith said findings about student understanding will guide MCPS in planning what will happen next in terms of training students and adults in the schools “how to respond, how to prevent and then how to report if it does happen.” He added that reporting instances bullying, hazing and sexual assault is important, just like prevention.
Earlier this year, MCPS administrative staff told the Montgomery County Board of Education about the changes in sports teams’ plans for supervising students, including writing down who will monitor the students before, during and after practice, as well as contingency plans.
Presentations to the board also included steps with the goal of supporting a culture that would encourage strong character in its athletes.
Director of Athletics Jeff Sullivan told the board in August about an anti-hazing and anti-bullying presentation given to athletes before the start of the fall season. WilmerHale found that MCPS does have a positive culture around athletics, and that MCPS has “robust” regulations for reporting behaviors. The problem lies within understanding who holds the responsibility for reporting incidents if they occur outside class time. Coaches and sponsors of activities have a “basic, functional understanding” of reporting, while administrators and athletic directors do understand their reporting responsibilities.
“While coaches and sponsors understood they were obligated to report certain incidents, they were often unfamiliar with the specifics,” according to the report.
The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, led by State’s Attorney John McCarthy, is investigating if a culture of hazing exists in the school system, in light of court proceedings for the Damascus locker room incident.
That investigation resulted in some restrictions on who MCPS consultants speak with, Smith said. The State’s Attorney’s Office report has not been made public so far. Smith told reporters during the news conference that WilmerHale representatives met with the county state’s attorney’s office during their investigation.
Based on interviews with coaches, athletic directors and school staff, WilmerHale recommended that MCPS consider hiring additional supervisory staff during after school hours.
MCPS Board of Education Member Patricia O’Neill said the WilmerHale report met her expectations.
Smith said MCPS intends to include additional staff in the upcoming operating budget to help some schools more effectively supervise students after school hours, which was the time of day the Damascus locker room incident occurred.
When asked about the magnitude of needed supervision hires, spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala said MCPS staff are working on the operating budget, and the superintendent is scheduled to present his proposed budgets in December.
Smith said the report was scheduled to come out in June or July, but MCPS did not make it public right away, partly due to cooperation with the county state’s attorney’s office.
Smith said there will be student-led training related to bullying prevention, which students may attend. Staff will present an annual report on athletics to the Board of Education.