Dr. Brewer, two Dominions and ‘passing the trash’
Brewer, a former football coach, sought to unite a challenging constituency – a consolidated district that included both the wealthiest and lowest income sections of Sterling. With the charm and diligence of a populist politician, Brewer campaigned to create a school culture called “Truly Titan,” an educational community where differences could be addressed safely and candidly among people of common interest.
The determined principal, then only 34, quickly won over the community with infectious enthusiasm and meticulous organization, convincing even the most skeptical that every student is a citizen of Dominion, every teacher is a mentor, and every parent is a contributor.
So committed to his vision was Brewer that he pledged to visit the home of every student at Dominion High School, a pledge he soon made good on. His routine of visiting homes and knowing each student by name is celebrated at Dominion. It stands as the principal’s personal signature of his commitment.
“We are not in Kansas anymore,” Brewer announced at the outset of his educational journey, according to news reports at the time. "Wherever you come from … to us, all those places are Kansas. Dominion is not Kansas. It's not like other places."
Fourteen years later, “The Wizard of Oz” reference still resonates. Dominion is not like most public high schools. Parents and students compare it to a private school with top academics, athletics and personal connections among all stakeholders in the community -- teachers, administrators, students and parents -- who embrace “Truly Titan” and “Titan Unity.”
But now another story unfolds. It emerges from the band room at Dominion, where a former band director is accused of improper behavior with students. That story leads to the principal’s office, where Brewer wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Brian Damron, the former director who engaged in inappropriate behavior and communications with students, according to officials in a Florida school district.
Damron resigned from his position in Florida in November, soon after the local school system's investigation surfaced. He has not been charged with a crime and maintains his innocence.
Brewer, meanwhile, took administrative leave on Dec. 3, shortly after The Florida Times-Union first reported the allegations -- both in Florida and at Dominion -- against the former band teacher.
In Loudoun County, the Dominion community has rallied around Brewer, seeking his reinstatement. In boisterous displays of “Titan Unity,” hundreds of supporters have provided testimonials at recent School Board meetings or taken to social media in defense of their principal. One thousand “Bring Back Brewer” yard signs have been planted in neighborhoods and along roads from Sterling to Leesburg. A GoFundMe campaign has raised $34,000 to offset Brewer’s legal expenses should he contest the school district’s recommendation to fire him.
School Board member Debbie Rose, who represents the Dominion district, has indicated that Superintendent Eric Williams has recommended Brewer's termination.
Just this Tuesday, approximately 40 supporters took the “Bring Back Brewer” campaign to the School Board meeting, delivering short testimonials about the principal whose actions are being considered. The Brewer supporters – hundreds of which have addressed the School Board – say they won't yield until his reinstatement.
But in other corners of the Dominion district -- as well as in Duval County, Florida -- parents who say their children were abused by Damron are critical of the principal’s actions.
“What if it was your child?” the mother of one Dominion band student said in an interview with the Times-Mirror. Expressing fear and embarrassment, the mother reflected on being too uncomfortable to report incidents of improper conduct that her son experienced in the Dominion band room. The mother emotionally expressed regret for not reporting the incident and possibly changing outcomes for other children.
Several parents and teachers suggest school officials were aware of inappropriate language and behavior by Damron when he was at Dominion. Commenting on a story about the Florida allegations involving Damron, a teacher wrote, “this happened at Dominion too.” She said that students complained to the administration on multiple occasions about Damron’s lewd behavior, but there was never enough proof to have their opinions taken seriously.
Brewer’s recommendation of Damron following the band director’s resignation at Dominion infuriates a Florida mother who told investigators that Damron engaged in inappropriate behavior with her son at the Florida school.
“Any administrator who knowingly passes along a teacher who is suspected or engaged in sexual misconduct with students deserves the same punishment as the sexual offender,” says Patty Wilson of Duval County. “Dr. Brewer should have been aware. Damron wouldn’t have ended up here and my son wouldn’t be harmed.”
The practice of recommending teachers to another school district amid reports or suspicions of inappropriate contact or communications is called “passing the trash” in education circles. Currently it is the topic of national debate as well as legislation in several states aimed at prohibiting it.
A two-month investigation by the Times-Mirror has honed in on the two Dominion communities.
One coalesces around support for Brewer’s no-excuse style of tough love and unity.
The other exists in the whispers and shadows of the school, where the needs of the most vulnerable students have been belittled or dismissed, where the policy of “Titan Unity” and inclusion may harm those struggling or beaten down, and where allegations of inappropriate behavior by the band director have been overshadowed by support for the principal.
Parents who question Brewer’s leadership say they can’t express their concerns publicly because they fear that their children who attend Dominion will be targeted. One teacher said she feared for her job if she spoke out at School Board meetings, and she also worried about possible retribution against her two children who attend Dominion.
“I’m afraid to speak up at these meetings or sign a letter like this,” wrote another parent in a confidential letter to the Times-Mirror. “The Brewer fan club has become cult-like, and while I know from conversations with others that I am not the only one who feels this way, everyone is scared to speak publicly about it.”
Although their identities are known, the Times-Mirror agreed to withhold the names of parents and teachers because of their concern about the welfare of their children and students. While their identities are protected, the parents' stories are supported by notes, records and detailed personal accounts.
In December, the Times-Mirror disclosed an investigation by Duval County School Police in which Damron revealed incidents at Dominion. Loudoun County Public Schools also reported an allegation against Damron to the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office in 2014, but the investigation didn't go forward because the alleged incident happened in another county.
Last December LCPS officials released a statement about its previous knowledge of allegations against Damron.
When LCPS became aware of new allegations against Damron in Florida, the school division says it “promptly” reported the matter to the sheriff's office. On Dec. 6, 2016, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office told the Times-Mirror the department had opened an investigation into Damron's time at Dominion.
Brewer took leave of his job just as the allegations were made, but supporters contended then that the two events may not be related.
LCPS administration won’t comment in detail on Brewer’s leave, citing privacy in personnel matters. The school district is following an administrative process pertaining to Brewer’s absence, but it is not commenting on the process.
According to those who sponsor the GoFundMe account for Brewer, the process will include a full-day hearing before an officer hired by the county, and an additional hearing before a closed session of the full LCPS School Board if the recommendation to terminate is approved by the hearing officer.
Supporters say Brewer intends to vigorously defend his position and has retained counsel to represent him.
Passing the trash
Nationally, the advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME) is promoting legislation passed in Pennsylvania in 2014 that would prohibit educators nationwide from recommending teachers accused of sexual misconduct. SESAME proposes banning confidentiality or separation agreements in instances of sexual misconduct or violence. It also requires information-sharing between employers, as well as mandatory annual training of administrators, principals and teachers to recognize and report sexual misconduct.
One target is the recommendation practice known as “passing the trash,” where a teacher accused of sexual abuse or misconduct resigns, retires or is terminated and then is allowed to quietly move to another school or school district without the new employers being alerted to the allegations of misconduct.
“Passing the trash” was initially exposed by disclosures in 2000 that the Catholic church allowed sexual abuse by priests for years by reassigning them to a different parish.
Earlier this year, Virginia legislators proposed a series of new legislative efforts to ensure teachers are promptly stripped of their licenses for sexually assaulting students. The legislation came after news reports disclosed that Fairfax County Public Schools waited years before revoking the teaching licenses of four educators who engaged in sexual misconduct.
Virginia state Sen. Janet Howell (D) proposed a budget increase for the Virginia Department of Education Division of Teacher Education and Licensure, which helps investigate teachers accused of sexual misconduct. The agency would benefit from additional money and staffing to help ensure local schools are not allowing teachers to slip through the cracks, according to Howell.
Del. David Bulova (D), meanwhile, championed a separate measure that would require school districts to notify the Virginia Department of Education 10 days after initiating an investigation of a teacher suspected of misconduct. Current law only requires school districts notify the state after a teacher is convicted of a crime.
“We shouldn't leave it to the school system to decide when has it gotten bad enough to report it,” Bulova told NBC in Washington.
Bring back Brewer
Meanwhile, the Dominion community rallies to bring back Brewer. Hundreds of parents, students and teachers continue to call on the School Board to bring back their leader. Many have provided character references at the meetings.
Even Brewer’s place of faith, the Reston Bible Church, sermonizes for his support.
“I want to assure you that the details surrounding this matter, John’s role in it, and his character have all been seriously considered by both pastoral staff and the Elder Council,” writes Executor Pastor Bruce Campbell on the church’s website. “Based on our knowledge of the situation and of Dr. Brewer himself, the leadership at RBC believes the recommendation for termination is extreme, unwarranted, and unjust … consequently, although you may lack details, we are asking you to trust our collective judgment, pray for John, his family and the School Board.”
“Pray for him?” Patty Wilson, the Florida mother, asks. “They should say a prayer for the children harmed by Damron.”
Brewer’s detractors draw on the Penn State University sexual abuse scandal in 2011 as a darker metaphor for the Dominion controversy. There, revered football coach Joe Paterno was fired for concealing facts about the sexual abuse of young boys by an assistant coach, but Penn State supporters by the tens of thousands rose to defend their coach even as the troubling charges were confirmed.
“Who speaks for the victims of alleged sexual abuse at Dominion?” asks one parent, who spoke anonymously for fear of recrimination. “When I attended the School Board meetings to support amending discrimination policies, the halls were lined with Brewer supporters. I asked at least three of them whether they knew if [Brewer] knew about the sexual abuse allegations. None of them knew. It didn’t even matter to them.”
Public sentiment for Brewer’s reinstatement remains overwhelming as the school district conducts its process for considering whether to make Brewer’s leave permanent.
All high school principals have their supporters and detractors, but in the Dominion district, most continue to admire Brewer’s leadership at the high school. They celebrate “Truly Titan” and stand unequivocally behind their beloved principal.
Some supporters have been critical of recent press coverage, contending that it has not fully reflected the degree of devotion to which Brewer is held in the community, nor has it captured the pain that students, teachers and parents at Dominion are confronting.
“There have not been any sit down, face-to-face personal interviews that show the hearts of thousands of people, who on their own out of love, come to beg for their principal’s return. Why don't you be the first to write an article representing what they are feeling and why do parents and teens feel like they have been abused,” supporter Barbara Ager wrote in an email to Times-Mirror reporter Chantalle Edmunds. Ager's note was submitted as a letter to the editor and copied to the school board and Superintendent Eric Williams.
Detractors agree that “Titan Unity” has been disrupted, but argue that the focus should be on the real victims – past students at Dominion who were allegedly subjected to vile behavior by the band director and a principal unwilling to intervene. Several parents said their children were abused with sexually explicit name-calling from Damron. They described acts where the band director bullied students, engaged in improper touching and then threatened to make their lives miserable if they said anything.
The parents said they emailed or phoned Brewer, but the principal either didn’t return calls or emails about their complaints, or told students to deal directly with Damron about their problems.
One mother of a student at Dominion regrets that she did not press her complaints more aggressively.
“Why didn’t I push? Why didn’t I make Brewer listen?” she asks. “At some level I was made to believe that it was all OK. But it wasn’t OK.”
-Reporters Hannah Dellinger and Chantalle Edmunds and Managing Editor Trevor Baratko contributed to this story.
-Times-Mirror: LCPS officials recommended Dominion teacher for new job after ‘alleged incident'
-Times-Mirror: Support for Brewer
-Florida Times-Union: Stanton Band director resigns after investigation into alleged inappropriate, sexual comments
-Boston Globe: Lawmakers want to make it easier to punish educators who sexually abuse students
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