Damascus High School leaders and the Montgomery County Board of Education deny they knew of “a longstanding sexual assault practice” before four students were raped prior to football practice in 2018, according to new court filings.
In February, the victims of a sexual assault in a Damascus football locker room filed suit against school officials and the school district, claiming they knew of a culture of “weekly” sexual assaults but did not intervene to not taint the team’s reputation. When the 2018 assaults occurred on Halloween afternoon, the Damascus varsity football team maintained a 51-game winning streak and was ranked nationally.
News of the rapes — and succeeding claims of widespread problems — stunned the community.
The victims, who were members of the junior varsity football team, claimed they were sodomized with a broomstick by four teammates as part of a “hazing ritual.”
Four students were charged with first-degree rape, attempted rape and conspiracy for their roles in the attacks. Their cases were tried in juvenile court, with proceedings closed to the public, so their pleas and sentences are not known.
About five months after the conclusion of the criminal trials, the victims filed a civil lawsuit against school officials.
The lawsuit names the Board of Education, former Principal Casey Crouse, former coaches Vincent Colbert and Eric Wallich, and former Athletic Director Joseph Doody as defendants. None of the defendants currently work at Damascus High.
In a brief response to the lawsuit, the defendants broadly deny all claims that they knew of a “brooming” ritual and that they were negligent in any way. The response does not address any specific claims, but broadly asserts that school staff members were not responsible and had no prior knowledge of assaults, despite the lawsuit’s claims.
The complaint detailed multiple alleged assaults dating to 2016 that were “notorious” and made some freshman boys afraid to change clothes in the locker room. It claimed that some students and parents had reported earlier assaults to Colbert, but that he did not investigate.
The lawsuit also takes aim at a lack of supervision in the team’s locker room that allegedly enabled the attackers for several years.
“Essentially, the JV football locker room at Damascus High School was an unchecked breeding ground for sexual assault committed by other members of the football team,” it says.
An MCPS-led investigation in the months following the 2018 rapes found that the JV locker room was left unattended for about 25 minutes, against MCPS policy, during which the attacks occurred.
All claims made in the lawsuit are consolidated into a single claim of negligence against the defendants.
In a second response, Damascus staff members request that the court dismiss all claims in which the victims ask for compensation totaling more than $400,000. They cite Maryland law that says public school employees are “immune to damages claimed over $400,000.”
The law says employees can be subject to larger claims if they acted with malice or gross negligence, or outside of the scope of their employment.
The victims have not yet disclosed information about how much money they are seeking in damages, according to attorneys representing them.
Doody, Crouse, Wallich and Colbert argue that all claims made in the lawsuit were about alleged actions taken in their professional capacity and there is no evidence presented to support claims of malice or gross negligence.
Gross negligence carries a higher standard of proof than negligence, according to the file. It is an “intentional failure to perform a manifest duty in reckless disregard of the consequences … and also implies a thoughtless disregard of the consequences without the exertion of any effort to avoid them.”
Defendants argue that the claims in the lawsuit are “sufficient to plead a claim of ordinary negligence, but nothing more” due to a lack of specific information about alleged previously reported cases.
“Without such details, Plaintiffs have not shown that the acts or omissions of the individual defendants were reckless, wanton or without such conscious disregard to the rights of others as to act as if those rights did not exist,” the filing says. “Plaintiffs have not established that any individual defendant was aware of an imminent threat to the safety of Plaintiffs that was then ignored … in utter disregard for the safety of the Plaintiffs or intentionally and consciously to cause them harm.”
The school board makes a similar argument in a separate filing.
The board says it is also subject to sovereign immunity under state law. The difference, however, is the board could be subject to $400,000 in damages “per occurrence.”
In its filing, the school board argues that because the claims from all of the victims are presented as one “set of facts,” it should be considered as a single occurrence, meaning the aggregate amount of damages it could be required to pay would be capped at $400,000.
“Plaintiffs went to great pains to allege that the sexual assaults at Damascus High School all arose from the same hazing ritual known as ‘brooming’ and that ‘brooming’ continued due to defendants’ failure to adequately supervise the football locker room,” court documents say.
Further, the school board argues that despite claims of a “predatory brooming ritual,” it was “routinized and regularized” meaning the victims “allege only a singular and ongoing negligent failure to supervise the locker room that created an ‘unchecked breeding ground for sexual assault.’ ”
A status hearing in the case is scheduled for November.
In March, a member Seneca Valley High School’s 2018 junior varsity football team filed a civil lawsuit making similar claims against school staff and the school board.
In his lawsuit, the student says he was raped by teammates in an unsupervised locker room and school officials did not do enough to prevent the attack.
The player says in the lawsuit that he was raped on Sept. 17, 2018, and alleges that officials at the Germantown high school were negligent in not taking steps to prevent the attack, despite knowing that sexual assaults had happened in other Montgomery County high school locker rooms.
It alleges that football players pulled the student’s pants and underwear down and “penetrated, touched, assaulted and slapped” him in the locker room before practice.
The Damascus lawsuit briefly mentions the alleged assault and says it is “consistent with what happened at Damascus.”
The Seneca Valley student, not identified in court documents because he is a minor, is seeking monetary relief “in excess of $75,000.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com