Alleged middle school 'butt grabber' worked in 58 MCPS schools; arrest record includes previous sexual assaults
DAMASCUS, Md. (WJLA) – The man accused of inappropriately touching two girls at a Montgomery County middle school last month came in close contact with tens of thousands of other young children.
On Thursday, Montgomery County Public Schools released a list of 58 schools it says 44-year-old John Epps Jr. worked in over the last six months. The school locations dot the entire Montgomery County map: Bethesda, Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, Olney, Poolesville, Potomac, Rockville, Silver Spring and Wheaton (see complete list of schools below).The alleged crime at hand
On Oct. 6, Jasmine Andoh-Thompson, 12, was walking down a hallway at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus. Epps Jr., a contracted security camera technician, was strolling in the opposite direction when police say he grabbed Jasmine's left buttocks.
"He just stuck his hand out and he touched my butt. I turned around and he was already up the stairwell," Jasmine recalled.
A male teacher observed the incident and notified school security. Ironically, police say, the camera guru was captured on video, going in for the grab, by the very security cameras he was hired to maintain.
"They wouldn't let me watch the video, but I guess it caught everything," Jasmine added. "He's, like, triple my age. It's really weird."
A detective interviewed Jasmine the day after the incident occurred, which led to Epps Jr.'s arrest. However, Baker Middle School Principal Louise Worthington opted to stay silent—no letter home to parents, no mass e-mail—nothing. Parents say they only learned of the reported sexual assault by reading the police blotter in The Gazette newspaper, nearly one month later.
"I'm very, very upset," said Peggy Thompson, Jasmine's mother. "They should have sent letters to all the kids in the school, their parents, [telling] them to ask their kids if something of that sort happened [to them, too]."
The damage control dance
ABC 7 News broke the story Saturday afternoon. By Monday morning, the copy machine at Baker Middle School was on overdrive, spitting out hundreds of take-home letters detailing the troubling incident. Staff members also held a parent coffee meeting on Wednesday morning. Roughly 75 parents attended the half-hour get-together in the school's media center. Too say the mood was tense would be a dramatic understatement.
"This is absolutely unacceptable. You don't decide what's best for our children, we do," one mother shouted at a throng of MCPS staffers in attendance.
"This isn't the first time MCPS has tried to cover something like this up. I don't believe anything will change moving forward," a second mother remarked.
MCPS, which originally called the alleged sexual assault "an isolated incident," had extra egg on its face when a 17-year-old Damascus High School student contacted police to report Epps Jr. inappropriately touched her, too. The teen only came forward after ABC 7 reported on Epps Jr.'s arrest. Police are expected to file additional charges against the camera technician.
Jennifer Alvaro, a Bethesda mother and certified social worker, has been lobbying to improve MCPS' response to alleged sexual assaults at the hands of school staff members and contracted employees like Epps Jr. She contends the situation at Baker Middle School is merely the latest instance of MCPS sweeping a sexual assault under the rug.
"They only try to protect themselves, and clearly that's the case here," Alvaro remarked. "I'm completely bewildered as to why, in this day and age, they haven't chosen to change that mentality."
Alvaro, whose 9- and 11-year-old sons attend MCPS schools, is also concerned about Epps Jr.'s tech knowledge and the free roam he was afforded.
"Just like that [Georgetown] rabbi, he could have been putting his own cameras in hidden places. I sure hope that's been investigated in every single school that company ever put this man in," she said.
A troubling trend
According to numerous online criminal databases, prosecutors in Maryland and Pennsylvania have charged Epps Jr. with sex-related offenses in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
In October 2010, Anne Arundel County Police arrested Epps Jr. at a CVS Pharmacy in Severn, Md. after the then 40-year-old allegedly grabbed two adult females by the buttocks. One woman was a store employee, the other was a customer standing in line, waiting to pay a cashier.
"[The victim] stated she felt 'something' brush against her buttocks and thought maybe it was the subject's items he was purchasing. However, she then felt the subject palm her right buttocks. [The victim] was stunned and turned around to face the subject," Anne Arundel County District Court documents state.
A female police officer happened to be inside the store at the time of the incident. She detained and subsequently arrested Epps Jr., whom CVS management had previously banned from its Severn location due to numerous groping complaints.
During police questioning, Epps Jr., appearing to be "nervous and confused", and told detectives he accidentally "bumped" into both women because the pharmacy was "packed." Police say there was ample room to navigate through the store.
Epps Jr. hired a Silver Spring defense attorney and ultimately pleaded guilty to a single count of Second-Degree Assault. A judge placed the husband and father of two on probation, and fined him $500. By pleading guilty to a lesser charge, Epps Jr. avoided having to enroll in the Maryland Sex Offender Registry.
ABC 7 News is working to obtain the arrest reports in Epps Jr.'s 2013 criminal case.
Background check bungle
So, how did Epps Jr. manage to gain access to nearly 60 schools in a day and age when student safety and wellbeing are two of the highest priorities? MCPS administrators were quick to point the finger at the 44-year-old's employer, Rockville-based Netcom Technologies, Inc.
In May, Netcom, Inc. hired Epps Jr. from a temporary staffing agency. Yet, instead of running its own independent background check, Netcom, Inc. accepted the paperwork the temp agency had on file. MCPS says those documents were grossly inaccurate.
"Going forward, Netcom has said [it] will do full checks on any temporary employee hired to work in a school. We are also reminding all of our contractors who work in our schools what their obligations are under the law and requiring they re-run checks on their employees working in schools," MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig said in an email sent to ABC 7.
Netcom, Inc., which has earned tens of millions of dollars in contracts from MCPS over the last 20 years, did not return our phone calls seeking comment.
Who is John Epps Jr.?
According to court paperwork, Epps Jr. has been married for more than 10 years and has two young children. His public Facebook page identifies him as a member of the Straightway Apostolic Temple and a graduate of Prince George's Community College. Shortly after his October arrest, the 44-year-old moved out of his Baltimore home and is now living with his father in Fort Washington.
During a brief phone call, Epps Jr.'s defense attorney would only tell ABC 7 News, "No comment." Epps Jr. is due in Montgomery County District Court for a status hearing on Nov. 21 at 8:30 a.m.
Aiming for transparency
Baker Middle School Principal Louise Worthington handed students a second take-home letter on Wednesday. The one-page note outlined the middle school's plan of attack, which includes small group meetings for students, additional counseling support and a follow-up Q&A community meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. in the school's media center. All are welcome to attend.
"I apologize for the lack of communication when the investigation first began. I am committed to providing a safe and welcoming learning environment for our staff and students," principal Worthington concluded.List of MCPS schools where Epps Jr. worked