Credit: Julia Terbrock

In about a month’s time, the Highwood Theatre has unraveled.

Since early August, two of the four full-time staffers resigned from the Silver Spring-based children’s theater company. On Aug. 24, just a week out from the company’s performance in the Page-to-Stage Festival hosted at the Kennedy Center, a dwindling board of directors fired Highwood’s executive director and founder, Kevin Kearney. An investigation found he violated internal rules by sending sexually inappropriate text messages to a now-former student, who also worked at the theater, while the person was a minor.

In that time, all but one of the board’s eight members have stepped down—leaving only Kearney’s father, Jim Kearney, remaining. Neither Jim, nor Kevin Kearney responded to requests for comment.

On Aug. 30, about a week after his termination, the Highwood community received an email from the theater sent on Kevin Kearney’s behalf. He wrote that he “may well have violated our policies” and took responsibility “for any and all unprofessional conduct on my part.” He emphasized that the accusations stem from communications with a “staff member” that “occurred four years ago,” and wrote that “it is important that I tell you that I have been accused of nothing else and in fact there is nothing else.” (Bolds and italics copied from the original email.)

But board meeting minutes, interviews with former staff and former board members, and the messages themselves tell a different story.

Screenshots of the messages, which City Paper has reviewed, contain general references to oral sex, talk about virginity, sex on a beach, and whether size matters. The messages that City Paper reviewed begin in 2015, when the former staffer was 15, and a student at the theater. Kearney was about 25. The messages continue up until 2018 and are part of a back-and-forth between the two people.

The former staffer and recipient of the sexual messages, who spoke with City Paper on the condition of anonymity and asked to use gender neutral pronouns to protect their identity, says before their text exchanges started, Kevin Kearney started giving them compliments in person, saying they were special and unlike the other students.

Then, the former staffer says, “he would start mentioning little weird sexual things here and there. Like he might say ‘Oh be right back, I’m gonna go jerk off,’ or something like that.”

The former staffer says Kevin Kearney also sent them pictures of his genitalia via Snapchat, an app that can automatically delete messages. The former staffer did not save those photos.

“The first couple he’d say, ‘Oh that wasn’t meant for you. That was meant for someone else,’” they say, and at least one screenshot of their texts seems to support this claim. “And then he started sending them on the regular at night. I would ignore them and not respond because of how uncomfortable it made me.”

Through an attorney representing Highwood, who refused to speak with City Paper on the record, Kevin Kearney denies sending pictures of his genitalia. The internal investigation turned up no evidence of the photos, the attorney says.

Two former board members, David Glietz and Hannah McCann, call Kevin Kearney’s Aug. 30 letter misleading and partially inaccurate. Glietz and McCann say they spoke with a second person involved with the theater who also reported receiving inappropriate messages from Kevin Kearney starting when the person was 15 years old. This person also told Glietz and McCann that they had a physical relationship with Kevin Kearney, Glietz and McCann say.

This person, who City Paper agreed not to identify by name, has since denied making such claims. In an email facilitated by the attorney representing Highwood, they write in part that “there is no truth to allegations of inappropriate sexual contact by Kevin toward me if these allegations have been made. I should add that this is not a retraction. Anyone who suggests anything other than my statement here is simply incorrect in their memory or interpretation.”

Further complicating the situation is Kevin Kearney’s father’s position on the board. Although Jim Kearney, who is a partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, recused himself from much of the board’s discussions of these allegations, at least three board members say they felt intimidated by his comments during the portions of the meetings in which he participated. Board members specifically recall Jim Kearney warning that they could be liable in a lawsuit for firing an employee without due process and asking to “get granular” about details of the allegations.

Both Glietz and McCann also recall him saying, “If this gets out, be ready for the Highwood fire sale because no one’s going to want to be a part of it.”

Highwood Theatre began in Kevin Kearney’s basement and produced its first show in 2004. The nonprofit organization has since expanded into a unique opportunity for young people to get hands-on experience in nearly every aspect of theater production.

The organization has stuck around for 15 seasons, and in addition to its shows, provides in-school educational programming in the area, as well as private lessons.

Highwood’s revenue comes from several sources, including donations, sponsorships, ticket sales, enrollment fees, and local government grants, according to financial records. Since fiscal year 2015, the theater has received more than $131,000 in public grants from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.

As the allegations were coming to light in early August, Highwood’s board was in the midst of searching for a new location. Board meeting minutes show a cash-strapped organization struggling to keep the theater afloat, worrying about paying its employees and rent, and grappling with its communication to families who pay enrollment fees, including whether to say anything about the allegations at all.

The first person to come forward—the same former student-staffer City Paper spoke with—initially told an adult employee, Liz Daingerfield, who no longer works for the theater. Daingerfield says the former staffer told her that Kevin Kearney sent them pictures of his genitalia along with other sexual messages. Daingerfield says she reported the allegations to Child Protective Services.

Daingerfield says she resigned due to the board’s handling of the allegations and was troubled by the theater’s lack of communication with its employees.

“I felt it wasn’t a fully ethical place to be anymore,” she says.

Glietz first learned of the accusation Aug. 8, and reported it to the board during a teleconference meeting on Aug. 11, according to the minutes. Jim Kearney quickly recused himself, the minutes show. The board ultimately decided to place Kevin Kearney on administrative leave and emailed him just before 11 p.m. to let him know.

About 40 minutes later, Jim Kearney responded with an email suggesting that his son be allowed to continue working on the theater’s relocation. Kevin Kearney was involved in negotiations to find a new space, and without his son’s involvement, Jim Kearney wrote, the theater will be without a performance space and without a way to generate revenue.

“Frankly, I am less than enamored of the Board taking this action without first speaking with Kevin, and even less enamored that the Board considered the issue of who to place in the Acting Director role,” Jim Kearney wrote. “That was not made clear as an action item for this meeting, and I would have wished to have weighed in on that issue.”

The attorney representing Highwood emphasizes that Jim Kearney acted appropriately and recused himself. Jim Kearney has written similar things in a recent email to Highwood families.

On Aug. 12, Glietz says he received a call from Matt Nicola, the theater’s former artistic director, who told him that a second person (the same person who now denies making any accusations) had received inappropriate messages from Kevin Kearney beginning when that person was as young as 15. Nicola has declined City Paper’s requests for comment.

That evening, Glietz and McCann met face-to-face with this person at the Highwood offices. They describe the person as “anxious” and say the person expressed concern about other people finding out.

“I said, ‘Are you talking about just text messages, or are you talking about physical interactions?’” McCann says. “And [they] said ‘physical.’”

Glietz and McCann reported these allegations to the full board the following evening, according to the minutes. Immediately, Jim Kearney jumped in.

“The word physical was barely out of my mouth before Jim started aggressively questioning who this second person was,” McCann says.

Glietz recalls that the combative interaction effectively shut down any discussion about a second allegation, and the board then began talking about whether its insurance policy would cover legal fees, financial struggles, and the theater’s relocation, minutes show.

Minutes for the following board meeting on Aug. 15 show similar discussions, including an estimated $30,000 shortfall and not enough cash to cover payroll or rent.

“Jim says this board should make a commitment to do everything to keep the organization running, to keep HW viable,” according to the minutes.

After nearly an hour, Jim Kearney recused himself to allow the remaining board members to discuss its investigation. According to the minutes, board members outlined a plan that included interviews with “Complainant #1, #2, and Kevin.” McCann, Glietz, and a third board member, Sarah Monnerat, agreed to conduct the interviews.

Toward the end of the meeting, board member Barbara Stone submitted her resignation via email. Two days later, Glietz also resigned, saying in part that he was being forced to choose between the increasing demands on his time from the board and his full-time job.

In his resignation letter, Glietz also doubted the organization’s viability. The red flag, he wrote, was an email from Kevin Kearney to board members dismissing McCann’s questions about the theater’s relocation to Bethesda. 

“The more I think about that moment, it is evident they never saw us as their leaders,” Glietz writes. “But rather a rubber stamp body the non-profit charter required to sign off on the staff’s decisions. I regret not calling more attention back to the issue back then suggesting we hold the staff accountable for their inappropriate conduct.” 

McCann resigned soon after, citing Glietz’s resignation letter. Until then, she says, she was unaware the board had discussed relocation plans without her.

Glietz and McCann’s firsthand knowledge ends with their resignations.

“I understood he must be upset,” McCann says of Jim Kearney. “But looking back, it compromised our responsibilities in that situation to have him involved as much as he was.”

The remaining board members later decided to change course and hire a firm, Squire Patton Boggs, to conduct the investigation. Three board members then voted to fire Kevin Kearney effective Aug. 24 for violating internal rules governing staff communication with minors.

Highwood Theatre, through its attorney, has refused to release the final report to City Paper, citing confidential information. The attorney also declined to release a redacted version but described its conclusions. 

Noting he has not read the text messages between Kevin Kearney and the former staffer, the unnamed attorney described the messages as “juvenile” and “misguided and overly familiar based on the intimacies discussed, but not dangerous.”

“They continued to be friendly and to work with each other,” the attorney says. “And the young person continued to rise in responsibility, and there was no incident for all those years.”

The attorney says that the investigator for Squire Patton Boggs asked interviewees about the alleged physical contact with Kevin Kearney. He says the person who originally made the accusation denied it, and notes that person is identified in the report as a “witness” not a “complainant” as they are in the board meeting minutes.

“No one, including the original complainant, the one complainant,” the lawyer says, correcting himself, “has said there was any sexual impropriety. No physical contact. As far as I know, and I’ll say definitively that we have no information as to any physical impropriety.”

The attorney tells City Paper that the offensive text messages were limited to a one-month period in August. But the former staffer says, and screenshots of the messages show, sexually inappropriate messages continuing as recently as 2018.

“This has now been in the community since August, almost two months, and usually in a situation like this, other people step forward,” the attorney says. “There’s no #MeToo moments here.”

The attorney also scolds Glietz and McCann for resigning before the investigation concluded.

“The board acted correctly. They hired outside counsel, conducted an investigation, and they fired an individual,” the attorney says. “The people involved recused themselves, and these guys are out there throwing spitballs. What’s intimidating and truly offensive is that they would be causing an organization confusion by speaking to a reporter about a situation they know nothing about.”

Glietz and McCann say that seeing Highwood’s misleading communication with its community fueled their motivation to speak out.

“I felt that every parent deserves the chance to be aware of these accusations whether or not they’re true, so they could check in with their kid, check their kid’s cell, and make sure their kid wasn’t exposed to harm,” McCann says. “And as a parent I feel strongly about that.”

Kevin Kearney’s Aug. 30 letter did not say his messages were sexual in nature nor that they were with a minor and continued from 2015 to at least 2018. Only after questions from City Paper did the theater send an emailed press statement, which is not posted on its website. The statement referred to Kevin Kearney not by name, but as a “senior employee,” and says “these text messages were exchanged approximately 4 years ago, when the student staff member, now an adult, was an adolescent.”

As for Jim Kearney’s involvement, the attorney says, “I would ask to see the humanity in that,” referring to Jim Kearney’s unique position as a lawyer, a board member, and the father of the accused.

“At first he was startled, but then he recused himself,” the attorney says. “His story is simple. He reacted like a lawyer and a father, and then he recused himself, and now he’s trying to move on.”