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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:

  1. Nearly half of the 24 World Class drum corps have employed at least one former teacher previously disciplined for misconduct with a student. The misconduct records, in many cases, are publicly available online. 

  2. In some instances, corps administrators knew about applicants' blemished backgrounds but hired them regardless.

  3. Criminal background checks were not required by the activity’s governing body, Drum Corps International (DCI), until 2017; there are still no national guidelines regarding hiring someone with a record.

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.”

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

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.”


After the 2005 scandal at Churchill High School, Mike Stevens returned to Portland, Ore., his hometown. He told acquaintances that he was burned out on the rigors of Texas marching band and wanted a change of pace. In late 2006, he had no trouble getting hired to teach percussion for the Seattle Cascades, a Washington drum corps.

In a forum at the time, he called it “a dream come true to be back home and have the opportunity to help a [Northwest] corps get back in the mix.”

Chris Whyte, then head of the Cascades percussion section, said he felt lucky that the group had picked up such a well-known musician. Whyte said he does not know if corps administrators checked with Churchill High School before hiring him.

“I don't remember being asked to provide a list of references for myself,” he said. “So I don't know that at that time with the activity, that that was common practice.”

Two years later Stevens helped form Oregon Crusaders Indoor (OCI), an ensemble that competes in Winter Guard International, a circuit similar to DCI. He soon would start teaching with the Crusaders drum corps as well.

He met 17-year-old Liana Bernard when she came to watch her boyfriend at an OCI practice over the 2009 winter break. Stevens struck up a conversation and asked if she wanted to join.

“We need more pretty girls,” Bernard recalls the then-40-year-old Stevens saying.

She was thrilled.

“I just wanted to be a part of OCI so bad,” she said. “And so to be told I was good enough — and to be a 17-year-old who likes attention and wants to be told they’re beautiful or that they’re pretty — I was excited.”

In practice she, like others, noticed that Stevens would bully and berate male members, while singling out certain females as favorites. The dynamic was intimidating to Bernard, who was trying to earn a spot on the exclusive, male-dominated drum line. Hoping to stay in Stevens’ favor, she reached out to him on Facebook Messenger. She had heard he used Facebook to talk with other female members.

Over the next several years she came to spend nearly all of her time with Stevens. He taught her at both the Crusaders’ summer and winter groups. He hired her to teach with him during high school marching band season, income she became reliant on. At night, they would talk online, Bernard sharing about her life.

Bernard said Stevens could be affectionate and nurturing one day, then distant and cold the next. She sought his approval as a mentor, boss, and friend — lines that were blurred. Looking back, she sees that she tolerated treatment entirely inappropriate for any of those relationships.

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

“You were having that effect on me friday. … your boobs were out,” Stevens wrote to her on Facebook in April 2014. “Ugh sorry to be inappropriate. director/friend/peer struggles.”

Another sent a few months later read: “I was already crushin’ on you pretty hard but I think those jeans yesterday made me fall in love.”

“He definitely engaged in grooming behavior,” Bernard, 26, said. “He ended up talking to me a lot about my life. I opened up to him and trusted him more.”

She was not the only young woman Stevens was messaging outside of practice. Five women affiliated with the Oregon Crusaders described such behavior, saying he developed deeply personal relationships with them and often commented on their looks.

“It wasn't just being friends with an educator. It was a lot more sinister than that. It was a lot more negative,” said 23-year-old Olivia Ovall, a former member. “And the way he presented himself and the way he talked to most of the girls he taught was not OK.”

One woman, who shared her story on the condition she not be named, said her relationship with Stevens turned sexual.

She said she was 17 and a high school senior when Stevens, then in his early 40s, invited her to perform with the Crusaders' indoor group. She couldn’t afford the fees but agreed to volunteer, hoping Stevens could become a mentor at a time when her relationship with her parents was fractured.

Toward the end of her senior year and just after her 18th birthday, he asked her to the movies. The next day he told her he enjoyed their “date.” It hadn’t been one in her mind. He asked her out again a few weeks later. And this time, in the darkened theater, he kissed her.

“In my head I was like, ‘I hate this,’ ” she recalled.

Yet, given Stevens’ position and her own inexperience dating, she felt powerless to break things off. She said they had sex for the first time days after her graduation.

As he had with Romo in Texas a decade before, Stevens assured her that what they were doing was normal. Even so, over the year-and-a-half relationship, he warned her often to tell no one they were together, the woman remembers.

She would keep the secret, but only for so long.


After Joel Moody surrendered his Florida teaching license in 2011 for sending sexually charged text messages to a student, education officials concluded his actions made him unfit to work with students for at least five years. But Moody quickly found support in the tight-knit marching community anyway.

“While past mistakes are evident in Joel’s case, it is not what defines his breadth of overall work,” the board of directors at Teal Sound, a now-defunct Jacksonville drum corps, wrote of its 2011 decision to hire Moody. “People make mistakes, and we all learn from them.”

The next year, Moody joined the Crossmen, the San Antonio corps where he had marched. The director, Fred Morrison, told critics Moody deserved a second chance. To help him along, Morrison paid for a service to bury Moody’s past in online search results, according to two people told about the tactic, one of whom saw a receipt for the service in the corps office.

(Moody left the Crossmen in May, after the Inquirer wrote about his record. Morrison, the director who hired him, resigned as the chairman of DCI’s board of directors but remains director of the Crossmen.)

Others beyond Moody have found the cloistered drum corps community forgiving when it comes to past transgressions.

Austin Melcher, for example. Blenski of Pioneer said he felt comfortable hiring Melcher, who had secretly filmed a woman changing, in part because he knew him personally. Melcher had previously marched with the corps.

Then there is Morgan Larson.

Larson built a reputation on the impossibly high notes he could hit playing the soprano horn when he marched with Wisconsin’s Madison Scouts in the mid-1980s.

“The diva,” a member of his staff would later call him in court.

In his late 20s, Larson became director of the CapitolAires, an all-female drum corps in Madison. There he met 12-year-old Robyn Schroeder. She had joined at a time when her parents’ marriage was on the rocks. Larson was going through a divorce himself. He often asked about her parents’ problems during their private lessons. The instructor and the young girl grew close, especially so when Larson befriended her father.

One day as he drove her home, Larson pulled his light blue minivan into a park beside Madison’s Lake Mendota, turned off the engine, and began to fondle the girl, first over her clothes, then beneath. He asked her to touch him. She was 14 at the time.

Larson sexually assaulted her repeatedly over the course of several months, she said. She eventually told her mother, who called the police.

At Larson’s trial in October 1995, jurors heard from other teenage corps members. One testified that Larson had had a sexual relationship with her. Another said Larson had twice rubbed his hand between her legs.

Jurors also learned that Larson had previously served a one-month suspension from the corps for having a consensual relationship with a member.

Larson was found guilty of sexually assaulting a child and sentenced to five years in prison, plus 10 years of probation, during which he was banned from involvement with youth groups. At sentencing, the judge noted his lack of remorse. Larson was back in court in 2007 for violating his probation by dating a 35-year-old woman with a cognitive disorder and the maturity of a 15-year-old. He was briefly sent back to prison.

Despite all of that, Larson has remained involved in drum corps.

In 2011 and 2012 he marched with the Kilties, a Wisconsin all-age corps that competes under the umbrella of Drum Corps Associates, a nonprofit similar to DCI.

Scott Stewart, then the executive director of the Kilties, in an interview said he has known Larson since he was 10 and decided to let him march because he had served his time and should not be kept from doing “something he loved.”

Over the years, Larson has also played with ensembles that performed at drum corps-related events, including multiple stints at an annual fund-raiser for ALS research hosted by an alumni group of the Madison Scouts, his former corps, and DCI finals weekend in Indianapolis.

This year, through those contacts, he was invited to perform with Midwest Connection, an adult group that is run by the Cavaliers, one of the activity’s top youth corps. He was soon asked to volunteer as an instructor.

Larson was not given a required criminal background check at that time, Chris Hartowicz, president of the Cavaliers board of directors, acknowledged. He said that the people who invited him to join did not know of his background and that Larson was asked to leave after the organization received a tip about his record.

Larson did not respond to a request for comment.

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Schroeder is now a 39-year-old mother of four whose childhood memories are shadowed by what happened with her former director.

Many in Madison’s small drum corps community had stood by Larson when she came forward. At trial, she looked out from the witness stand, a scared girl in a black jumpsuit embossed with red and orange flowers, and wondered whether the familiar faces that filled the courtroom were there for her or him. At his sentencing, many spoke on his behalf, pleading for leniency.

In the years since, every time Larson resurfaced in the very world where he groomed her for abuse, a part of her wonders why she bothered speaking up.

“Everything I went through was for nothing,” she said. “What did I accomplish?”


Mike Stevens' behavior at the Crusaders started to catch up to him with a single Snapchat message, sent in 2016. Stevens had taken a photo of a performer from behind as she bent over and sent it to her. “Nice to see you,” he wrote.

Word of the woman’s unease spread, eventually reaching Anna Spangler, an instructor with the group. Spangler was incensed. Years earlier she had confronted Stevens about his treatment of her as a performer — in particular the sexual comments he made, like telling her she should try out for the men’s magazine Maxim’s list of “hot” women.

“I thought, naively, that me telling him about boundaries would flip a switch for him and he’d stop messaging girls,” she said.

Now she knew he hadn’t. The next year, her concerns would grow when she learned that one of those relationships had turned sexual. Specifically she had connected with the Oregon woman whose relationship with Stevens began with the kiss in the darkened movie theater. Spangler took her concerns to the Oregon Crusaders board in November 2017.

She provided a cache of inappropriate messages sent between Stevens and a number of women in the organization. Phil Marshall, president of the board of directors, appeared appalled, Spangler recalled.

But after the meeting, she heard nothing back.

A few days after Christmas, the Crusaders posted a message on its website.

JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

“We would like to thank OCI co-founder and former director Mike Stevens for his contribution to the organization’s success for nearly a decade,” the message read. “We are grateful for his tireless efforts to facilitate the growth of marching percussion in the Pacific Northwest, and OCI wishes him all the best as he moves onward and furthers his career as an accomplished composer, arranger and sound designer.”

She read it again. OCI wishes him all the best …

“It felt kind of like a punch in the gut,” Spangler, 28, recalled recently.

Liana Bernard saw the posting too. It had been a few years since she had started to distance herself from Stevens after coming to see their relationship as toxic. The Crusaders’ farewell was a “slap in the face,” she said.

“There needed to be a statement apologizing for anyone who was abused in the group,” Bernard said. “Or admitting fault and saying, ‘We’re going to do our best to make things better in the future.’”

Marshall declined to answer questions about how Stevens was vetted by the Crusaders when he was hired. In an email, he said all employees and volunteers are subjected to criminal background checks. He declined to say whether Stevens was fired or allowed to resign.

Marshall said the organization had been unaware of the scandal involving Stevens in San Antonio prior to this year.

Others connected to the Crusaders, though, had previously heard about what happened in Texas. That number includes the five women interviewed for this story, one calling it “fairly common knowledge” among her peers. Jeff Bush, who founded the indoor group with Stevens, said he heard about it in 2010 from a friend in the industry but told no one else because it was “hearsay” and he had no proof.

Stevens departure prompted ProMark in March to strip his name from its drumsticks and add to its endorser agreement a ban on immoral behavior.

In Portland, the Crusaders indoor group he led is on hiatus, and the drum corps is plagued by continuing problems.

In August, the instructional staff sent a list of grievances to the Crusaders board, citing in part the corps’ handling of sexual misconduct and harassment claims. The board investigated and found no breach of the corps’ policies. Frustrated by the response, the staff soon resigned en masse.

Meyer Anne Hudson was among those with a complaint. At the start of this summer’s drum corps season, the 18-year-old told her instructors that she had been groped during an off-season party by a member of a competing corps. The man had continued to harass her online, she said. With the summer tour approaching, she asked Crusaders executive director and CEO Mike Quillen to ensure she would not come in contact with her harasser while on the road.

Quillen, she said, agreed to address the issue.

After weeks passed, Hudson said she cornered Quillen.

“I asked if he planned on taking any steps and he said no, that it was fine. I’d be safe. It was no big deal,” she said. “Like when a toddler falls and scratches their knee and they think it’s the end of the world and the parent is like, ‘No you’re fine. Brush it off.’ ”

Quillen did not respond to a request for comment, but Marshall defended his handling of the situation. Marshall said Quillen hadn’t acted because Hudson wouldn’t provide the man’s name. He later admitted that wasn’t true and said her complaint languished because it was tied up with an investigation into another complaint she had made.

Hudson had in fact provided the organization photos of a Facebook conversation between her and the man.

In them, he repeatedly badgers her to meet up with him over the summer — and she repeatedly says no.

“There comes a time when you have to say: Enough is enough,” Hudson said of the Crusaders’ response. “Because with the Mike Stevens stuff, they could have changed things then and made it better then. But they didn’t.”