It comes down to trust.
A parent sends their theater-loving child to the Highwood Theatre, a Silver Spring, Md.-based youth educational theater company, where he can get performance and technical experience and have fun with his peers.
The parents trust the adults running Highwood will teach and nurture these budding actors and technical crew in a safe, professional environment.
But that’s not what happened at Highwood.
As Mitch Ryals of Washington City Paper reported, the theater is currently embroiled in scandal after an investigation found Kevin Kearney, former executive director and founder of the Highwood Theatre, in violation of internal policy by sending sexually inappropriate messages to a former student and employee of the theater while that person was a minor. A second former student at Highwood has also come forth with stories of alleged inappropriate sexual behavior from Kearney when the student was underage.
The fallout from this August’s disclosures has been swift. Other than Kearney’s dismissal on August 24, two of the four full-time staff members have resigned and all but one board member has stepped down. The only board member remaining is Kearney’s father, Jim Kearney. Phone calls to the theater go unanswered and the Harwood’s website has been taken down.
Farrar Williams, a teacher and education consultant, was “devastated” by the news and says that she and her family are facing “broken trust issues.” Her 15-year-old son has been a part of the Highwood community for six years, both as an actor and part of the crew. Williams’ husband, Peter, performed in a professional show and Farrar ran the theater’s home school program for one season.
“It was a great experience for my son, both the tech jobs and the tech classes and the roles he played,” Williams said, citing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hairspray and Thoroughly Modern Millie as highlights of her son’s time at Highwood. She adds that the Highwood was “a unique resource—it was a place where kids could just put on a show.”
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This past summer, Williams’ son was stage manager for three shows and also worked in the office. Williams states that neither she nor her son had direct knowledge of the allegations against Kearney. “He told me something weird was going on at the theater, but he’s a teenager and they tend to be in their own worlds.”
Williams did say her son assured her that he didn’t see or experience anything that made him uncomfortable during his time at Highwood’s theater or in the office. “Kearney was the heart of Highwood, its founder,” Williams said. “People looked up to him. Somewhere along the way he betrayed that trust and definitely thought he was going to get away with what he did.”
When the news of Kevin Kearney’s wrongdoing surfaced, Williams received a phone call from a board member, who has since resigned. “We thought there would be more information forthcoming and when that didn’t happen we pushed back.”
Williams believes that the whole matter was mishandled from start to finish. “The only person left on the board was the father of the perpetrator. That’s just wrong,” she said.
And then they, like other parents and members of the Highwood community, received an email on August 30 from the theater sent on Kearney’s behalf. “It was so defensive and inappropriate and contained what we now know are falsehoods,” she said.
Williams and her husband decided that the Highwood Theatre’s story needed to be told to the public and they reached out to local media. “Naively, we trusted this institution and when the misconduct came to light, the theater handled it badly,” she said.
The downfall of the Highwood has left Williams feeling “mistrustful and sad.” And she has her son’s reaction to contend with.
“He’s become more pessimistic, like people are basically terrible and do terrible things,” she said. “He’s a little depressed lately. He is home-schooled, so the Highwood was one of his major social outlets.”
The family talked bluntly and clearly about Kevin Kearney’s behavior when the news broke and continue to talk to their son about trust in institutions and people. “The whole thing has had a negative effect on the family and we’re not even the victims.”
“It’s a sadness for us,” she said. “We lost our community.”
Since this article posted, we have spoken by phone with Jim Kearney, who said the Washington City Paper article contained errors, but, at this time, have no further response to report.
If this is true, it’s nearly criminal that no one came forward with this information before he founded and ran a youth theatre company for years (with public funding).
This is not the first time — Kevin Kearney was fired from School for Tomorrow years ago due to the same behavior with a student there.