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Is there a culture of hazing in the high school football program at Damascus High School in Montgomery County?
The parents who are suing the Montgomery County School Board say there is in a complaint filed last week alleging school administrators, coaches and teachers knew students had been sexually assaulted with a broom in the school locker room.
School board officials have said in a statement the allegations made in the suit about past hazing and sexual assaults “have never been reported to MCPS leadership.”
Produced by Ashley Lisenby
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we remember Willie Wood, the NFL Hall of famer, who called Washington D.C. home. And we'll meet local Girl Scout troops advocating for the big brown bat to be D.C.'s official state mammal and what motivated them to take up the cause.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first the parents of Damascus High School football players who say they were sexually assaulted with a broom in the locker room in 2017 and 2018 are suing the Montgomery County Board of Education. In their complaint they allege school administrators, coaches and teachers knew brooming had been an ongoing practice on the football team. They say the negligence of school officials caused their kids harm. Those parents have filed two separate complaints. Joining us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore is the Lawyer, who represents those parents, Billy Murphy. Judge Murphy, thank you for joining us.
WILLIAM H. "BILLY" MURPHYThank you and I'm with Eddie Cardona, who has played an integral part in this entire case. And he will assist in answering questions if that pleases you.
MURPHYAnd we're happy to be on your show, because you're a great journalist.
NNAMDIThank you very much. In the complaint parents allege there has been a history of hazing and other forms of harassment and assault. A statement in the complaint reads, quoting here, "While brooming did not always devolve into rape this sexual assault practice was endemic in the junior varsity football locker room," and goes on to mention other behaviors like hitting, jabbing and poking players with a broom. An internal investigation of the football team revealed there is not a culture of hazing at Damascus. But your clients disagree, why?
MURPHYWell, first of all you have to look at the franchise of the so called internal revenue. It was limited to a review of supervision policies and reporting protocols associated with the athletics and other extracurricular activities at Damascus High School and more broadly across the district. And so by its terms it was not aimed at investigating these incidents at all. There was no look back. There was no effort by the school board to do a comprehensive investigation of what happened historically when the brooming started or anything like that. And it's a mystery that -- well, it's not really a mystery. You know why they're doing it. They're trying to make it look like it was an investigation of these alleged incidents and it was not.
MURPHYSecond, there's ample evidence as Mr. Cardona will lay out that brooming was an old practice going back at least to 2015 and probably earlier than that. Mr. Cardona?
EDWARD CARDONAWell, thank you. What we do know is that school administrators, principals, coaches knew as far back as probably 2016-2015 that brooming was going on in the locker room. We have evidence of a 2017 incident, who's identified as John Doe 1 in our complaint, who through his parents and friends of parents notified the school, notified the coaches, and was brought into the security office to discuss the incident. And at that point a conscious decision was made by school administrators and school officials to do nothing in order to control the investigation, control what was going on in the locker room and protect the brand of Damascus football.
NNAMDIWhen you say the school decided to do nothing, what evidence do you have of systematic negligence?
MURPHYWell, they never reported any of these incidents, and they were obliged to do so both under their own reporting procedures and otherwise. They were in the category of what we call mandatory reporters, because when you supervise kids especially you have an obligation under the law to report any alleged incident like this. And there was a failure to report. For example, in the 2017 incident a parent reported to the JV coach, who said that he was going to report the incident all the way to the top. That did not happen or any alternative. Nothing was done as a result of that report. And then in 2018 you had a similar situation and finally in 2019 you had a combination of these events.
MURPHYAnd so the failure to report is a systematic problem. And whether it gets redressed or not in the future is anybody's guess, because the primary objective in Damascus High School wasn't protecting the most vulnerable of these kids. It was to promote the football program.
NNAMDIIndeed. Do you think that the reputation of the team as a winning team is at the view of the parents that that had something to do with this behavior going unaddressed?
MURPHYWell, not only does it have something to do with it. It was integral to the fact that it didn't get redressed. And there's a lot of pressure not to do anything to disparage the football team, because it is so popular in the Damascus region. It's one of the greatest football programs in the history of the state. And so when you have players, who are involved in this kind of conduct, the pressure is enormous from the football program standpoint to suppress the information. And that's what happened.
NNAMDIWhat kind of psychological and emotional effect have these behaviors had on these young football players according to the parents and the students themselves?
MURPHYWell, not only has it affected the players deeply who were affected by the brooming, but it has also affected the parents. These kinds of incidents put a family way off kilter and into a chaotic situation where the trauma from the events goes throughout the family unit and causes serious disruptions, and these kids are suffering grievously from what happened.
NNAMDIWell, the plaintiffs in this case are seeking more than $75,000 in damage in addition to legal fees. What other outcomes are these families hoping to achieve with this lawsuit and what happens next?
CARDONAWell, I think the use of the $75,000 just to make sure that's --
NNAMDIThis is Mr. Cardona.
CARDONAYes, sir. Yes, sir.
CARDONAJust to make sure it's clear. It's language required in Maryland to put in a complaint. Our system of justice and civil law only allows for compensation through money. Now what the parents are also looking for is to make sure that their sons who have been injured and harmed get the future treatment that they need, psychiatric treatment that they need and make sure that they are taken care of because this is the type of incident that, you know, is going to stick with these young men through their future, through future relationships potentially.
CARDONAAnd also, you know, seeking justice through changes in Montgomery County, which will only become known as we get through the discovery process of who exactly did what, when and where and who ultimately should be held responsible if those people have not already been held accountable.
MURPHYThe other thing that the lawsuit seeks is compensation for the tremendous pain and suffering, and that is a key component of what we're trying to do here. And we hope that this lawsuit will uncover everything that has gone on, because there is a pent up desire by parents to report other incidents. And we know of other incidents, but the parents are afraid that they will be blackballed or shunned, because these incidents would hurt the football program. And one of the things that we can do that nobody else has yet done is put everybody who knows anything about this under oath and depositions and get to the bottom of everything so that the full picture for the first time will be known.
MURPHYAnd if you will recall the state's attorney did some investigation not yet completed of whether any crimes took place. And the burden of proof in criminal conduct is the highest known to mankind. But in civil cases we have a much lower burden and that's called the preponderance of the evidence. And so it is possible that even if the state finds no criminal conduct that the evidence of negligence will still be overwhelming and point to a recovery in this case.
NNAMDIWe'll be following it to see what happens. Mr. Cardona, thank you for joining us.
CARDONAThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIBilly Murphy is the Senior Founding Partner of the Law firm Murphy, Falcon & Murphy in Baltimore. Judge Murphy, thank you for joining us.
MURPHYThank you very much.
NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Dr. Neil Bernstein. He's a Clinical Psychologist and Author based here in Washington D.C. Neil Bernstein, thank you for joining us.
DR. NEIL BERNSTEINIt's a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Dr. Jeff Sullivan. He is the Director of Systemwide Athletics at Montgomery County Public Schools. Jeff Sullivan, thank you for joining us.
JEFF SULLIVANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAn ESPN investigative report from 2016 found that fewer than five percent of hazing incidents are reported at high schools. Jeff Sullivan, what's the process for students to report instances of bullying, harassment and sexual assault to Montgomery County school administrators?
SULLIVANWe encourage all stakeholders across our program to report any incidents immediately using the MCPS bullying process form or we have an anonymous Safe Schools Maryland Hotline 833-MDBESAFE. And we certainly want all instances reported immediately to Child Protective Services and to the police as well as school personnel.
NNAMDIHow long has this system been in practice?
SULLIVANSo our reporting has been in practice for a long time. I think over the last couple of years we continue to enhance and involve and emphasize and educate not just our student athletes, but our coaches, our administrators and certainly our parents. With issues such as hazing, abuse and harassment we need a collective support network around that. So we continue to emphasize that and use all kinds of modules to educate.
SULLIVANOn this with hazing as you mentioned it's very important for us to look at that from all aspects and most notably our student athletes and our students. And also in Montgomery County Public Schools we're excited about some innovative ways that we're going to educate our students in the future on hazing in the wake of the external review of MCPS athletics.
NNAMDICan you tell us a little bit about what those new measures will be?
SULLIVANYeah. So we're going to look at our students. We've already engaged our students in this process. So we're excited about a student led training and engagement on hazing harassment, bullying, abuse that we intend on debuting for the next school year that we've been working on behind the scenes and engaging our student leaders from our student athlete leadership council and other groups, because we think that on the topic of hazing particularly having that message delivered by students and assisted by staff members, coaches and activity sponsors that we can make that message more powerful.
NNAMDIJeff Sullivan, news outlets over the past four years have reported a rise in sodomy hazing on high school football teams. How are MCPS coaches trained to deal with issues of sexual assault and harassment specifically?
SULLIVANSo our coaches, we charge our coaches. They're instrumental -- and also out activity sponsors for extracurricular activities and include it in our classroom curriculum. We want to attack bullying, hazing, harassment and abuse from all angles. So our coaches deliver a preseason promoting a positive culture presentation that we have enhanced and built upon over the last couple of years and continuing to promote our expectations number one that hazing, bullying, harassment and abuse have no place in MCPS athletics or extracurricular activities in any form in any setting.
SULLIVANWe also champion that we are committed to promoting a safe and welcoming environment that promote or raise core values of MCPS ethics. And thirdly, educating our students on reporting and emphasizing that if you hear or see something, say something. We really want our students and our coaches and our parents, everyone, to understand the importance of reporting and identifying these practices.
NNAMDIAs I mentioned earlier Dr. Neil Bernstein joins us in studio. He's a Clinical Psychologist and Author based in D.C. Neil Bernstein, there are different types of bullying including aggressive and passive aggressive forms of bullying. What in your view drives a teenager to bully or harass a peer?
BERNSTEINI am so glad you asked. Bullies are often driven by a sense of wanting a feeling of power and a feeling of status. And contrary to popular belief many bullies are rather insecure deep down inside and rationalize what they do. Oh, it's just fun. We were just kidding. And all kinds of things and we need to be able to treat and help bullies not be bullies. And victims deal with being victims.
BERNSTEINFor example, bullies often promote a culture of cruelty. They think it's cool to hurt someone. It isn't cool, fellows. And you need to really work with them on that. It's called empathic induction training to help kids tune into the feelings of others. How am I making someone feel when I do A, B or C? Whether it's verbal or physical, it's often hurtful. And they have to recognize the dangers. And the bullies have to deal with their own issues. There are many different reasons someone becomes a bully. Some are decent kids who just want status. Think it's cool. Others have had hardship in their own lives. Maybe they were bullied or abused. Others have psychological issues such as what we call conduct disorder or ADHD, which can sometimes fuel bullying, because of the impulsive nature of it.
BERNSTEINAnd then we switch quickly. I don't want to get too pedantic here, but what about the victims, okay. Victims who undergo bullying -- I'm stretching this beyond the sports realm. We're talking real world here because I've seen a lot of kids who have been bullied over the years. Often kids who have come in for help can be depressed. They can be anxious. Worst case scenario, they could have PTSD. Our job in my profession, as a therapist as an adolescent psychologist, is to empower them to speak out. You have a right to speak up.
BERNSTEINWell, kids are very very sensitive to that. They call it narking or snitching, and it's embarrassing and they're fearful. And we have to help them get permission to do that. We have to teach them to be able to be assertive about their feelings. In treatment we do something called CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, which is identifying the negative fearful thoughts, learning how to challenge them. I like to do role playing with victims about how you can deal with kids, who were bullying you, how you can deal with the school, who the safe person is to talk to.
BERNSTEINAll of this stuff is very very important and you have to be able to talk out the incident and what it has been like for the person who's been through this and how much damage has been done. And truth be told all kids don't react the same way. One shoe doesn't fit all. Some kids are really traumatized by it. The other extreme is laughing it off. I have not interviewed any of the young people, who these attorneys have been speaking about so anything is possible. It's very important data. And let me pass back to you, Kojo, and not hog here.
NNAMDIWell, we got a tweet from Campbell who says, "I know three students who just reported sexual harassment by the same student predator at MCPS school and they were treated with disrespect and contempt. The predator was back at school in five days." Well, obviously we don't know all of the details of that situation, Jeff Sullivan, but how do you equip students in Montgomery County Public Schools in general to deal with bullying?
SULLIVANWell, I think Dr. Bernstein brings up, you know, a key point he made about empowering. And I think we have an opportunity with our student athletes in particular and certainly our students, who participate in extracurricular activities to serve as role models in our schools. And I think this is an opportunity for us with our student led hazing education module to empower our students and really have that message from students to identify -- to help identify these behaviors that are in directly conflict with our core values to identify what they look -- so that there is no confusion around what hazing looks like in any form.
SULLIVANAnd then secondly to have the up stander mentality that you're going to report instances that there are not going to ramifications. And we have provided various avenues for reporting these instances, because we want to know about them. And the school system is prepared. And we have been addressing them to the highest extent in terms of our rules and regulations not just with athletics, but as a school district, because hazing, bullying, harassment and abuse have no place in our program.
NNAMDITell us a little bit, Dr. Bernstein, about being a victim of bullying and how it can affect a young person. What have you seen in your practice?
BERNSTEINWell, a lot of variation. As I mentioned earlier, for some kids it can have long term deleterious effects meaning influences the way they relate to other people. It could influence their self-esteem. It can influence how comfortable they are within their own skin and it weighs heavily on them. Other kids process it differently. It depends on the nature of the abuse and what the child brings to the table, with teenagers specifically, but in the end, I think, all kids have to feel, okay, that they haven't done anything wrong. There's nothing to blame themselves for what happened. It's clearly on the other person.
BERNSTEINAnd I would just add to what's been said about the school system that I think that all youngsters in high schools should have a conduit that is a safe place where they can go to talk. It might be a coach. It could be a guidance counselor. It can be a school psychologist. But there should be a designated person who is safe to talk to in confidence to help kids to deal with this. I can't tell you how many kids as we speak are carrying a burden of having been abused at some time in their life.
NNAMDIAnd we've heard a little about the training that coaches have to do. But how should parents talk with their kids about bullying, harassment and sexual assault?
BERNSTEINWell, first of all we have to acknowledge how much it hurts, and how we understand that you want to keep it private. Not all bully victims are willing to disclose what happened for fear of public censure by other kids. But we have to, as I said earlier, empower them to be able to speak up about what happened to have other ways to deal with it, to feel accepted in their community and to feel like they can respect themselves for doing that. And reduce the risks of what could happen, the down side, which is kids jump all over them for being a snitch or a tattletale.
NNAMDIDr. Neil Bernstein is a Clinical Psychologist and Author based here in Washington D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.
BERNSTEINYou're very welcome.
NNAMDIJeff Sullivan is the Director of Systemwide Athletics at Montgomery County Public Schools. Jeff Sullivan, thank you for joining us.
SULLIVANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back we'll remember Willie Wood, the NFL Hall of Famer, who called Washington D.C. home. And later we'll meet local Girl Scout troops advocating for the big brown bat to be D.C.'s official state mammal. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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