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Outside investigation of Damascus High sexual assault case takes longer than expected

An outside law firm hired by the Montgomery County school system to investigate how a 2018 sexual assault case at Damascus High School was handled has told school officials it will need more time to complete the work.

The firm, WilmerHale, expects to finish the examination by Sept. 30, said Derek Turner, a schools spokesman. The investigation, underway since April 29, was originally set to finish by June 30.

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WilmerHale’s work at Damascus goes beyond the 2018 incident, which rocked the high school of 1,300 students and the football-proud community around it. A group of junior-varsity football players was charged with using a broomstick to attack four teammates before practice inside a locker room. All of the players involved were 14 or 15 years old.

The outside attorneys are reviewing any other reports, dating to the fall of 2017, of sexual assaults, bullying or hazing within all of Damascus High’s sports programs, according to a written agreement between the firm and the school system. The attorneys, who are reviewing documents and interviewing staff members, also will assess whether the school had procedures in place to safeguard against any kind of culture built around violent, hazing-type incidents.

The firm will be paid up to $250,000 for its work.

“They have expertise in this kind of work, and this is a very important subject,” Turner said. “We want to be thorough and get this right.”

The investigation extends in a limited way beyond Damascus.

The school system selected three of its 25 high schools from other parts of the county, and has asked the law firm to review any incidents of sexual assault, bullying or hazing that may have occurred at those schools since the fall of 2017.

With nearly 900 lawyers around the world, WilmerHale’s practice includes examining sexual misconduct and student-athlete issues for academic institutions. One of its attorneys working on the Montgomery County project, Danielle Conley, “regularly conducts sensitive internal investigations” of alleged sexual misconduct within organizations, according to the firm’s website.

The Montgomery incident occurred on the afternoon of Oct. 31. As members of the Damascus JV football team were suiting up for their last practice of their season, four of their teammates entered the freshman section of the locker room, turned off the lights and guarded the door behind them, according to court records filed in the case.

One by one, four of the victims were wrestled to the floor. One of the victims had the broomstick pushed into him several times through his underwear, according to prosecutors. Another had his pants and underwear pulled down and was poked with the broomstick. The two others also were attacked with the broomstick, police said.

No coaches were in the locker room, which had gone unsupervised during a 25-minute period.

That night, one of the victim’s fathers called the JV coach and told him his son had been attacked, according to prosecutors’ statements. The JV coach called the varsity coach, who reported the matter to Damascus High’s athletic director and principal, according to authorities.

Just before 9 p.m. Oct. 31, the coach shared, via text messages with the principal and athletic director, that one player had been attacked and pinned, that his pants had been pulled down and that he’d been poked with a broomstick, according to a copy of the text messages reviewed by The Washington Post.

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None of the school officials called the police that night. And the next morning, the school’s principal launched her own investigation, during which school administrators interviewed suspects and victims before detectives were brought in.

In May, frustrated parents demanded answers from top elected school system leaders during an emotional public reckoning at a school board meeting.

In the fallout since, the school system removed the school’s athletic director, Joseph Doody, and its JV coach, Vincent Colbert. The principal at the time of the assaults, Casey Crouse, has moved to a job at the school system headquarters. The varsity coach, Eric Wallich, remained in place.

All of the four had declined repeated requests for interviews and comment about the allegations.

WilmerHale has specifically been asked to look at supervision and “review reporting protocols” for such incidents at Damascus.

Earlier this year, schools Superintendent Jack Smith said the school system’s internal review “concluded that there is insufficient evidence at this time to suggest undue delay in reporting the incident.” Smith said that the night of Oct. 31, Damascus school officials were trying to assess an evolving situation, and had exchanged additional, unspecified communications that Smith said “didn’t indicate a sexual assault” had occurred.

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