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Police in Montgomery County have charged five teenagers with second-degree rape counts amid allegations of hazing involving junior varsity football players at Damascus High School, officials said Friday.

The alleged attacks took place Wednesday in a locker room after school was dismissed at Damascus High, a football powerhouse on the northern end of suburban Montgomery County. Four juvenile male victims have been identified.

Of the five teens charged, all males, one was charged with three counts of second-degree rape, three were charged with two counts of second-degree rape and two counts of attempted second-degree rape, and the fifth was charged with one count of attempted second-degree rape.

The accused were not identified, which is standard practice in Maryland when alleged offenders are charged as juveniles.

Police said three juvenile suspects were taken into custody, charged and processed Thursday night. Officials announced charges against two additional suspects Friday evening.

All charges are being handled through the state's juvenile justice system. Police did not address whether the suspects were on the football team, but school officials said the allegations involved some junior varsity players attacking other junior varsity players.

School district officials said Friday that they were cooperating with the police investigation and are committed to the safety of all students. They did not comment on the status of team coaches or address whether they have been placed on leave.

They echoed comments made Thursday by Principal Casey Crouse, who wrote a letter calling the alleged behaviour at the school "upsetting and unacceptable" conduct that would not be tolerated at the school.

Crouse said the junior varsity team was forfeiting its game Thursday - the last game of the season - in response to the incident, which she said school officials had learned of on Thursday.

The school's varsity team, scheduled for a game at Wootton High School on Friday night, played as planned. Derek Turner, a spokesman for the school system, said its officials have no reason to believe varsity players are involved but added that police are still investigating.

"This is an ongoing investigation," Turner said. "However, we have counsellors and psychologists for the students of Damascus High School for any support and counselling they may need."

Second-degree rape is a serious charge in Maryland, covering a range of non-consensual acts that can involve the body or use of an object, over three basic categories: When force or threats of force are used; when a victim is impaired or helpless; and when a victim is under 14.

The state's more serious charge of first-degree rape includes cases in which attackers use weapons or put victims in fear for their lives. It carries a penalty of up to life in prison.

For teenagers charged with second-degree rape and as juveniles, the punishment is generally geared toward rehabilitation, said Paul Zmuda, a Rockville defence attorney and former prosecutor.

A teenager found to have committed second-degree rape could be placed in a juvenile facility - generally six to nine months - or could be allowed to stay with family if the teenager were electronically monitored or given an ankle monitor, Zmuda said. "The juvenile system, in general, doesn't like locking kids up who are under 16 unless they'd done something really serious," he said.

Lisae Jordan, the executive director and counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said "the fundamental nature of hazing is to degrade someone and to have power over someone. And sexual assault is a way to that."

Speaking in general, Jordan said, those who commit such acts may say they didn't consider it a sexual assault. "Sometimes assailants who are caught will say that," she said, "but it's likely an after-the-fact revision."

Several parents interviewed found the allegations alarming.

Sunil Dasgupta, chair of the health and safety committee of Montgomery's countywide council of Parent Teacher Associations, said that while he had no inside knowledge about Damascus, the case raises broader questions about safety education, coach training and enforcement of rules.

"If this is true and 14- and 15-year-olds are doing this, I can't imagine that there is not a general environment that allows them this latitude," he said. "What is the culture in athletic departments, what is the safety education, what are the preventative measures?"

He said he had not heard similar allegations in the past but had heard parental complaints that athletics departments operate under a different culture than the rest of the school system. He posed the question of whether there should be a wider investigation of the culture and training of athletic departments in public education institutions.

"The details of this are just incredible, especially coming after what happened at University of Maryland," he said, referring to the death of a player in the school's football program. "We have to work toward a more open and transparent way in which we operate."

School district officials defended the broader culture of athletics in the school system, which has 25 high schools.

The system "has a long-standing tradition of treating sports as more than just athletics, and rather an opportunity to learn about respect and equity and responsibility and trust and commitment," Turner, the schools' spokesman, said.

Lynne Harris, president of the countywide PTA organization and a teacher in the school system, called the alleged behaviour outrageous. "Hazing is one thing, but these allegations are about sexual assault," she said.

Harris applauded whoever came forward to report what happened, and said if the allegations bear out, she looks forward to hearing whether investigators find that they were part of a pattern or a first offence.

Hearings were held for three of the three of the suspects Friday afternoon in a fifth-floor courtroom at the Montgomery County Circuit Courthouse in Rockville in Rockville. The proceedings and were closed to the public, which is common in juvenile cases. Family members of the suspects were allowed in.

Outside the courtroom, Prosecutors with the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office declined to comment. Daniel Wright, a private attorney in Rockville who represented one of the suspects, declined to comment, as did Mary Siegfried, the head of the juvenile division of the Montgomery County Public Defender's Office.

David Felsen, who represented one of the accused teens at the Friday hearing, would only say: "This is very early in a case involving very serious allegations."

The Washington Post