TRENTON, N.J. – As classes resumed in a New Jersey town for the first time since the arrest of seven high school football players on charges of sexually assaulting younger teammates, attention turned to whether the state’s anti-bullying laws adequately address team sports.
The seven members of the celebrated Sayreville War Memorial High team were charged Friday with various crimes, ranging from hazing to aggravated sexual assault, for behavior that allegedly occurred during a 10-day period last month.
Advocates say New Jersey, which passed an anti-bullying law in 2002 and has added to it since then, is among the leaders nationwide in dealing with the problem. But the laws do not specifically address sports teams.
Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said the allegations have prompted a review.
“We do see this as an opportunity to provide guidance and to take a fresh look at how school districts have not only been responding to hazing and bullying – hazing is certainly part of bullying – but to see what additional best practices” can be put in place, he said.
The state’s high school sports governing body, in its constitution, encourages schools to establish rules on hazing, and schools are also obligated under state law to have anti-bullying procedures. Sayreville’s 17-page anti-bullying policy doesn’t mention the words “athletics” “sports” or “coaches.”
Steve Timko, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletics Association, said the organization is going to review its rules on hazing and expand its education programs addressing the issue.
Sayreville Superintendent Richard Labbe, who canceled the rest of the school’s football season last week over the allegations, and School Board President Kevin Ciak didn’t return calls for comment.
Labbe has said he is weighing the future of the football program, which has won three sectional titles in four years and is the pride of Sayreville, a community of about 40,000 people 25 miles southwest of New York City.
“I will say clearly: Whether we have a football program moving forward is certainly a question in my mind,” he told NJ.com. “Based upon the severity of the charges, I’m not sure.”
Three of the students were charged with aggravated sexual assault, hazing and other crimes stemming from an act of sexual penetration against a team member. The four other students were charged with aggravated criminal sexual contact and other offenses.
All seven have been suspended. None have been identified because they are minors.
It isn’t known whether coaches at Sayreville knew about the alleged abuse or suspected it was going on.
“Coaches and administrators are often the last to know,” said Brendan Dwyer, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Sport Leadership and a former college football coach.
But he added: “The more successful a team and the more highly publicized a team, that’s when they need to be almost hyper-vigilant.”
Hundreds of people turned out for a rally Sunday night that sought to promote unity and healing within the community and show support for the victims of bullying. The rally was staged in a park across the street from the school.
“We need to come together to support each other, our children, our community and most especially the young men who spoke up,” organizer Maureen Jenkins said in a speech.
“This will be a long recovery process for our community, but this is a good first step,” Alex Simon, 24, a Sayreville native, said of the rally.
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