Every so often during a sleepless night, Melody Romo searches online for the high school band teacher who lured her into a sexual relationship when she was 15.
She rarely finds much. But in August, there was a cryptic post in a public forum: The teacher, Mike Stevens, had been let go by a marching band group in the Pacific Northwest. In the dark, Romo searched further, until she found out why.
Other young women had accused him of sexual misconduct.
Romo was stunned. Years ago, when their secret spread from the band students at her San Antonio high school to parents, the principal, and then police, Romo believed what Stevens had always told her: If anyone found out, his career would be over.
Instead, Stevens got a second chance — in drum and bugle corps, a marching band circuit that draws some of the country’s most devoted young performers. Over nearly a decade at the Oregon Crusaders, a Portland drum corps, Stevens would continue to engage in inappropriate relationships with teens and young women.
“The feeling was surreal,” Romo said of the discovery. “I was preyed on. I was coerced. And I’m not the only one.”
An investigation by the Inquirer found nearly a dozen cases over the last decade in which teachers who had been disciplined for misconduct with students went on to work in drum corps as instructors, administrators, or judges. The inquiry also turned up several others with records that include crimes of a sexual nature. Taken together the examples highlight worrisome flaws — and an unusual tolerance for past sexual misdeeds — in the hiring practices of an activity that draws thousands of young participants each year. Among the findings:
The shortcomings have not been lost on drum corps participants and fans. Last year, an online petition calling on DCI to “protect students from sex offenders and sexual misconduct by staff” drew more than 2,000 signatures. Online drum corps forums have long hosted conversations about corps’ lax hiring practices and instructors with checkered pasts.
Matters came to a head in April, when the #MeToo movement hit drum corps in the form of a scandal involving one of its most decorated leaders, George Hopkins. Twelve women have told the Inquirer they were sexually harassed or abused by Hopkins over the nearly four decades he served as director of Allentown’s famed Cadets, years during which he achieved rock-star-like status in the activity. He now is awaiting trial in Lehigh County on charges of sexually assaulting two of the women.
In response, Dan Acheson, executive director and CEO of DCI, promised to do more to keep members and employees safe. He said DCI had assumed individual corps, which are each self-run nonprofits, were “doing what they’re supposed to be doing to manage themselves accordingly.” Going forward, he said, he would not take that for granted. DCI in May enacted a new code of conduct and ethics, and issued a lengthy list of required policies for corps, including ones covering whistle-blowers, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.
Acheson declined to speak with a reporter for this story. He also declined to answer many questions put to him in writing, including how DCI has handled cases of questionable hiring by its corps and whether DCI knew that one of its own judges had been stripped of his teaching license for sexually harassing students.
Acheson did say DCI has no “authority or oversight” concerning corps hiring practices. Faced with the newspaper’s findings, he said DCI would provide corps with more information and guidance going forward, including at its annual meeting of corps leaders next month, which will focus on health, wellness, and safety. Acheson stressed that DCI’s recently adopted code of conduct and ethics set clear standards for staff and volunteers.
DCI can discipline or suspend corps for violating its policies. But until it put the Cadets on probation in April, DCI had never disciplined a corps for concerns about participant safety. It did so for the second time in August when it suspended a Milwaukee corps that had, among other issues, employed a registered sex offender.
Critics have wondered why it had taken until now for DCI to demand higher standards from the corps that march under its banner.
“There have been issues for ages and, realistically, the nature of the activity has been to let individual drum corps handle these issues as they arise,” said Jarel Loveless, a former drum corps member who has questioned hiring practices in the activity in the past but with little success. “But sometimes drum corps aren’t properly equipped to handle issues.”
From June to August each year, drum corps troops crisscross the country, some in caravans a dozen vehicles deep. Tour buses filled with performers. Semi-trucks packed with props. RVs for the staff.
Often they travel at night, pulling out of a stadium lot after members have finished a show, slipped out of sweat-soaked uniforms, and fallen, exhausted, into their seats. The performers doze slumped against windows and hanging into aisles. Once at the next school they will temporarily call home, air mattresses are inflated on gym floors. The few hours of sleep will pass quickly, before the start of another day of practice.
This is the routine for the nearly 3,500 16-to-22-year-olds who perform each summer in drum corps’ most competitive tier, World Class.
The two dozen corps in the field — ranging from small, volunteer-run shops to powerhouses funded by multimillion-dollar bingo operations — end the season by facing off in an Indianapolis football stadium for the national title.
It is a distinct world, barely visible to those who have never experienced it firsthand. Those who have often stay connected for life. Many of the activity’s leaders — from directors to board members to top instructors — came up through the ranks, starting as performers. In that insular culture, traditions are revered and hard to recast.
By its very nature, drum corps is also littered with potential land mines surrounding sexual conduct. Young people travel far from home and in close quarters, the legal age of consent shifting as the caravans cross state lines. It is not uncommon for staff to be just a year or two older than the members they have authority over.
It all begs for clear, stringent, and uniform standards to protect participants. DCI has shouldered more of that responsibility only as its own #MeToo crisis has unfolded.
The ProMark TS7 Tenor Stick is made of hickory and measures 16 inches long, with a nylon tip that produces a bright tone. It bears the signature of the man who endorsed it: Mike Stevens.
For Stevens, the distinction was like “getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” a ProMark spokesperson once told a reporter. In 1992, his first year as drum corps instructor, Stevens composed a famously complicated snare drum piece he called “Flamnambulous.” Today, dozens of people have posted videos of themselves performing it on YouTube, one with more than half a million views.
Stevens, who did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story, got his first full-time teaching job in 2002 when he was hired as percussion director at San Antonio’s Churchill High School.
It was Melody Romo’s freshman year. A drumming novice, she had dreams of marching with a World Class corps like the ones her father took her to see each summer, walking her through the parking lot before shows so she could watch the musicians practice up close.
“From the beginning,” she said, “that was the goal.”
To improve, she signed up for private lessons with the 33-year-old Stevens.
He became a musical mentor, telling Romo that she was a prodigy. She also viewed him as a friend, sitting with him on the bus and spending free days with him on out-of-town trips. As the relationship developed, he would message her after school, his texts occasionally flirtatious and sexually explicit. Her sophomore year, she said, Stevens began kissing her during their lessons.
Romo was 15.
She was inexperienced and found the encounters, which advanced to him performing oral sex on her, deeply unsettling. Stevens, she said, often sought to calm her concerns.
“I’ve always remembered it,” Romo, now 30, said during an interview in the San Antonio home she shares with her boyfriend and daughter. “He was like, ‘It’s natural. It’s normal for two people to have an attraction to each other. It’s not weird. I’m a man, and you’re a woman, and this is normal.’ ”
During her junior year a band parent grew suspicious about the relationship and urged another student to secretly tape a conversation with Romo about Stevens. The cassette was given to school administrators and police.
As a local news station was preparing a story about the district’s investigation, Stevens resigned. The district ultimately found a “reasonable belief” that Stevens had an inappropriate relationship with Romo.
Officials forwarded its conclusions to the state department of education. But Stevens’ temporary teaching certificate expired with the findings still under review. As a result, officials closed the matter without a formal conclusion.
Stevens later gave a statement to the San Antonio police.
“I have devoted my entire life to get where I am,” he wrote. “I have endorsements with major drum companies, as well as a signature drumstick that sells in music stores throughout the country. … Rest assured of one thing — I would NEVER risk everything to ‘fondle’ a teenage girl.”
The detective on the case thought otherwise and recommended Stevens be charged with sexual assault of a child. Romo, however, refused to testify against Stevens and the county district attorney declined to prosecute.
At the time, Romo blindly thought she would one day marry her teacher and didn’t want to hurt him. A part of her regrets the decision today.
She also feels remorse about staying at Churchill High School her senior year, which was made particularly difficult by bandmates bitter over Stevens’ departure, instructors who seemed to single her out, and the parent she overheard gossiping about her. Romo was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She attributes it to the tension of that year.
Still, she kept her dream of marching in drum corps.
After graduation, she tried out for a corps in the San Antonio area and made it to the final round of auditions before being cut.
Years later, she said, she was told she was eliminated because of lingering animus over what had happened with Stevens.
“It’s the hardest part to talk about,” Romo said.
She patted at tears as she spoke, the pain coming as a surprise after all these years.
Pioneer, a Milwaukee drum corps, is one of the last mom-and-pop operations in the World Class, run since its inception largely by the same family. It also was a straggler when it came to criminal background checks.
DCI did not require corps to have background check policies until 2017, and in the absence of a mandate the practice was adopted piecemeal. Some corps have long conducted criminal checks on hires and volunteers. Pioneer would not start doing so until earlier this year — for a time even violating DCI’s directive.
(DCI now requires corps to provide proof of compliance.)
By the time it adopted the practice, Pioneer had a checkered record of its own: In 2017 the corps director had unknowingly hired a bus driver being sought by police and knowingly hired a registered sex offender as an instructor.
The instructor, Austin Melcher, had been convicted of secretly filming a woman while she changed. Roman Blenski, the corps’ longtime director who hired Melcher, resigned in August, after the Inquirer wrote about that decision and other concerns about his leadership. Blenski and his wife remain on the Pioneer board of directors.
The decision to hire Melcher, while controversial, did not violate DCI rules.
DCI does not identify offenses that would eliminate someone from working for a corps. While some corps have their own guidelines, many do not and ultimately give administrators great leeway in hiring.
In reporting this story, the Inquirer found current and former drum corps employees convicted of indecent exposure, placing a video camera in a student changing area, and flashing a female pizza delivery driver twice in one evening.
“Having a set policy takes away the ability for individuals to explain away or to rationalize a hiring decision,” said John C. Patterson, a former staff member of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center who has consulted with many nonprofits on youth safety issues. “The person might be the best bugle instructor in the world. But yet if he places kids in danger ... then he shouldn’t be part of that organization.”
Experts also recommend going beyond criminal background checks and looking at state licensing records. The Inquirer found several people in drum corps listed in public databases of disciplined teachers.
One, Dennis Laorenza, after being contacted by a reporter, said that none of the half dozen corps that he has worked for over the last two decades asked about his history as a Florida teacher or why he is listed on the state’s public database of disciplined educators.
A check of state records shows that Laorenza surrendered his teaching license in 1996 after a student accused him of kissing and fondling her multiple times, and once taking her to a hotel during the middle of the school day. Laorenza called the student’s accusations “exaggerated.”
By his own description of how drum corps vet prospects, it is not surprising his past went unnoticed.
“When you are hired at any drum corps in the country, from my experiences, there is no formal application. … Most of the time these people hire friends or people that are recommended to them, ” Laorenza explained in an email. “None of the paperwork ever asks if you have had an incident or have [surrendered] a teacher’s license. They are strictly looking for criminal charges.”