MCPS and Springbrook react to Damascus hazing


photo by Phil Fabrizio

Damascus high school's varsity football team has won a total of 10 state championships, including a three-peat in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

by Joel Lev-Tov, Staff Writer

Hazing (noun): Rituals, challenges, and other activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group including a new fraternity, sorority, team, or club.

Montgomery County reacted with shock to horrifying news from Damascus High School, where hazing allegedly took place in the boy’s locker room of the Damascus Junior Varsity football team on Halloween, October 31st. According to police reports obtained by The Washington Post, four football players were assaulted with a broomstick in a “sexual manner”.

According to the report, a 15-year-old male student cried out “Stop, stop, stop,” while the assault occurred. The report also mentions that two other students were forced on the ground, but managed to fend off the attacks. The victims explained that this was a “tradition,” even a ritual of sorts. ABC7 spoke with ten current or former players or who have “strong” ties to a the program, and eight reported that “hazing is a longstanding tradition at the school, but [the interviewees] stressed that, until now, it never involved sexual assault.”

Three players on the JV football team have been charged with second-degree rape, and two have been charged with attempted second-degree rape. MCPS responded to the charges by suspending the JV team’s games but not the varsity team’s games because, according to Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger, there “is certainly no indication so far that this incident extends beyond the junior varsity team.”

On November 11th, it came out that there was a second incident of hazing reported, this time at Seneca Valley High School. The Washington Post reported that an investigation had been started into allegations but the investigation fell apart because the victim declined to press charges. Montgomery County Police Captain Paul Starks told The Post that “These types of investigations are victim-driven.” It was unclear whether the allegation amounted to assault or sexual assault.

In terms of the response to the incident, MCPS spokesperson Derek Turner wrote, “The incident was reported to the school on the evening of October 31. The principal of Damascus sent a letter to her school community on Nov. 1 based on the information we [MCPS] knew at the time.  The police investigated and charged the students in the afternoon of November 2. A statement was sent to all MCPS families and staff the morning of Nov. 3. Finally, a message was sent directly to students on Nov. 5.”

Many questions remain about MCPS’ handling of this. Citing state law, the school system has refused to detail the retribution (if any) that adults have received for both the incidents at Seneca Valley and Damascus High School. Superintendent Jack Smith has skirted around questions as to whether staff members that were involved in the Seneca Valley incident continued to oversee the students. He told Fox 5 reporter Josh Rosenthal that “there were no more junior varsity [football] games after that incident [at Damascus High School]” at a press conference. He also stated that “it will all be known,” presumably referring to all details of the incident, after the police investigation has finished.

This is not the first incident of hazing at MCPS. According to Mr. Turner, they have happened sporadically over the years, but none have “risen to this level or seriousness,” referencing the Damascus hazing incident. Exact figures are not available, as MCPS does not have a separate category for hazing. It goes under the bullying category. Figures about bullying incidents can be found here.

The Blueprint interviewed Springbrook principal Dr. Williams, athletics director Mr. Feher, and Mr. Turner, MCPS’ spokesperson, regarding the steps MCPS and Springbrook’s athletic department are taking to respond to the incidents. Dr. Williams and Mr. Feher did not allow The Blueprint to record the interview. The Blueprint’s request to interview Springbrook’s football team was denied.

In terms of the response to the allegation at Damascus, all three stressed that most actions taken were not new and that the action taken just reinforced the policies that were already in place. Mr. Turner said in an interview, “I think we’ve had conversations around bullying and harassment before. It’s part of our student code of conduct, it’s part of our policy – we have a regulation around bullying and harassment. It’s part of our health curriculum.” He went on to say that the school system has realized in the wake of the tragic incidents that they would need to “increase the emphasis and attention on this conversation.”

All MCPS schools have received directives from MCPS on what to do at the individual schools in the wake of the incident. Dr. Williams outlined Springbrook’s “action plan” to deal with issues of hazing and harassment. His plan included enhancing supervision of students after school and emphasizing the core values: Respect and Sportsmanship, Academic Excellence, Integrity and Character, Spirited and Safe Competition, as well as Equity and Access (RAISE). Mr. Feher added there was a meeting with fall athletes, where a PowerPoint emphasized how to spot hazing, how to foster positive team culture, and how to consider the morality of actions.

Dr. Williams disputed the notion that the actions taken have been mostly at the prodding of MCPS, saying that the county only sets expectations and oversees the schools’ actions.

Some, including The Washington Post’s Editorial Board, have criticized MCPS as being “too worried about its image.” Mr. Turner stressed that the school system was “not focused on our image at all. We’re focused on transparency.”

The Post offered Mr. Turner’s comment to them that “this is not just a ‘MCPS problem’” as evidence. Mr. Turner disagreed, telling The Blueprint that the statement didn’t downplay the seriousness of the incident because “it’s an accurate statement.” The Post also called for a “vigorous” investigation into the issue of hazing system-wide. The superintendent indicated to Fox 5 that MCPS would investigate, though he did not mention how much would become available to the public.

There are many channels to report hazing. MCPS and Springbrook have stressed telling a trusted adult. Other channels include filling out a form, also available in the schools, email, and an anonymous tip line.