It may have been endured as an ugly rite of passage for rookie football players to ascend to the ranks of gridiron warriors, but when upperclassmen allegedly sexually hazed freshmen in a New Jersey high school locker room, it crossed a legal line.
Seven of them faced charges as of Friday, and police had taken six into custody. A seventh surrendered to police on Saturday. Prosecutors are not naming them because they’re juveniles.
At Sayreville War Memorial High School, proud of its state champion team’s years of gridiron triumphs, shame has emptied the bleachers, silenced the cheers and snuffed out the floodlights. The superintendent has halted this year’s football season because of the allegations.
“There were incidents of harassment, intimidation that took place on a pervasive level, in which the players knew, tolerated and in general accepted,” Superintendent Richard Labbe said.
In a statement, Labbe said the board of education “takes this matter extremely seriously and thus will continue to make the safety and welfare of our students, particularly the victims of these horrendous alleged acts, our highest priority.”
Jeers, harassment, attacks
Cloistered in the dressing room, older players allegedly flipped off the lights and filled the room with jeers as they accosted and sexually harassed four of their younger targets in four separate incidents.
The complaints allege that between September 19 and September 29, one or more of the teens “held the victims against their will, while other juvenile defendants improperly touched the juvenile victims in a sexual manner,” Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey and Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski said in a statement.
They penetrated at least one of them, prosecutors allege.
Officials have not disclosed details, but a Sports Illustrated article indicated that it likely did not involve intercourse.
Three are accused of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration.
Four more players, plus one of the first three, face counts of aggravated assault, conspiracy, aggravated criminal sexual contact, hazing and riot for allegedly participating in the attack, Middlesex County prosecutors said.
The Sayreville Bombers, who took the state championship three out of the past four years, had launched into a promising season this year.
Now parents used to applauding their sons’ conquests on the field are upset they have been benched for the duration.
“I’ve never seen so much dedication out of my son, and I want him to play the rest of this season,” a mother said at a school meeting to the roar of applause. Despondent players vented frustration over not being able to finish what they so confidently started.
They are at odds with parents and players who broke the allegations. That group is less vocal and has declined to be interviewed on camera, afraid to voice grievances out loud.
On Saturday, Mayor Kennedy O’Brien announced the creation of the Sayreville Coalition of Community Leadership, a group that includes clergymen and former mayors, “to help in the healing process.”
“Over the past few days, Sayreville has been hurt, has been embarrassed and has many, many questions about what has happened,” the group said. “We leave those questions to the Sayreville Police Department and the board of education, which we salute for their professionalism and direction through these difficult times. Our group is focused on healing.”
Coalition members will attend an anti-bullying community event Sunday night that was organized after the hazing scandal broke.
“What has made Sayreville such a special place is the people,” the coalition statement said. “We love Sayreville. It is a wonderful community of people who are dedicated to one another. This is a time to come together and to pray, as we rebuild and focus on the future.”
The despair haunting school hallways has infected the surrounding working-class neighborhood, turning into the fear of jail time.