Sexual assaults, ‘pervasive’ bullying revealed in N.J. town prized for football

At Sayreville War Memorial High in New Jersey, seven players from the school’s revered football program were arrested for attacking younger teammates in the team’s locker room. Jeffrey Brown learns more about the charges of sexual assault and “pervasive” bullying from Kate Zernike of The New York Times.

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    Now: the disturbing charges over sexual assault at a high school football program in New Jersey.

    Seven players were arrested over the weekend, and the district superintendent says he now believes the troubling behavior with hazing may have occurred before this season.

    And again to Jeff, who has the story.


    It's a celebrated football program years of on-the-field success, a Hall of Fame coach, and it's the pride of Sayreville, a New Jersey town 25 miles southwest of New York City.

    But now sexual assault and hazing charges have rocked Sayreville War Memorial High School. Seven players were charged Friday with attacking younger teammates in the team's locker room last month.

    Superintendent Richard Labbe had already canceled the team's remaining games last week.

  • RICHARD LABBE, Superintendent, Sayreville Public Schools:

    There were incidences of harassment, intimidation, and bullying that took place on a pervasive level and at a level in which the players knew, tolerated, and, in general, accepted.


    Labbe went further yesterday, telling "Whether we have a football program moving forward is certainly a question in my mind. Based upon the severity of the charges, I'm not sure."

    The decision to end the season has sharply divided students and the town.

  • PAIGE FICARRA, Student, Sayreville War Memorial High School:

    I feel really bad for the cheerleaders and the marching band and the rest of the players who didn't do anything. Like, why do they deserve to be punished for someone else's actions?

  • SAL MISTRETTA, Former Football Coach, Sayreville War Memorial High School:

    These kids have grown up with bullying and harassment. They know the right thing to do. And even the ones that weren't involved didn't do the right thing.


    New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has condemned the alleged assault and ordered a state review of anti-bullying laws. Currently, they do not directly address behavior on sports teams.

    Kate Zernike is covering for The New York Times and joins us now.

    Kate, how much is known about the incident at this point, whether it's a one-time thing or something more serious from the beginning and part of a regular pattern?

  • KATE ZERNIKE, The New York Times:

    Well, what we know from the prosecutor's charges is that it happened between — in about a 10-day — what they're charging is between a 10-day period in September.

    But what they have also said and what the superintendent has said is that this is, as the superintendent said in your clip, pervasive. And the superintendent has told us that he believes it happened at least last year, if not before then.


    What do we know about the young when who have been arrested? One question now is whether they will be tried as adults.


    Right. Absolutely.

    It's not that uncommon in New Jersey and particularly in Middlesex County, where this is, for juveniles to be waived up to adult court. And so that is certainly a possibility here, where the punishment obviously is much harder. You don't serve in a — juveniles will often get probation or time in a juvenile facility, which is much easier than a regular prison. So that's one big question, is how they be treated in the court system.


    And the victims, they haven't been identified, but one or more clearly came forward to talk about this.

    What do we know of them and how they're faring?


    Well, I think one of the victims' fathers — I think it was the victim who first came forward and went to police and said this was a problem, who really stood and said, I don't want this anymore — he was quote Saturday morning saying that this was — he felt tremendously vindicated by the arrests of these seven players.

    The other players, what's interesting is when you talk to some of the freshmen who were on the team where the hazing occurred, what is sort of heartbreaking, frankly, is that you hear them saying this was happening and we thought it was horrifying, but we kind of laughed it off because that is what we thought we should do, and we thought this was just sort of how upperclassmen behaved, that this was part of the program.

    And I think it was really only because one student came forward and said I'm going to the police that this really came out in the public.


    That would suggest a kind of culture of this — some kind of activity.



    And, you know, I think it's not probably that hard, unfortunately, for all of us to imagine how — how, you know, something that might seem like a fraternity rush moves into hazing and moves into bullying and then ultimately moves into this, which — as the prosecutor said, it is violent sexual contact.

    But I think, for these students, again, the students who were involved or allegedly involved in these attacks, they're looking at a future where they're marked as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives. This is very — this is a very serious crime.


    What about the coach, who I understand been there for about 20 years, and other adults, for that matter? Is there any sense that any of them knew or should have known what had happened?


    I think that's one of the big questions is, what did they know?

    But, certainly, a lot of people are saying, they should have known. One thing that was happening is the freshmen began — because they were so terrified to go into the locker room where this was happening, the freshmen began dressing for practice outside the locker room.

    And what a lot of parents and politicians have been saying is, why didn't the adults notice? Why didn't they say, hmm, that's odd, why are they changing outside the locker room and talk to any of them about what might be happening inside that locker room?


    Now, I mentioned the divisions in the town. What did you see? We know the superintendent canceled the season and he is now mulling over whether to cancel the program altogether. What's that doing to the town?


    Well, I think a lot of people, initially, in particular, were saying this isn't that big a deal. I think this was before the charges came out and it appeared that the kids had actually been sodomized.

    I think, initially, people were saying, well, as you — the girl said in your clip, why are we ruining this for all the cheerleaders, the band members, the other players who didn't do anything wrong?

    This is a town where it's sort of the quintessential suburb in the quintessential suburban state. And this is a town where people play Pop Warner football knowing they're going to go to the high school football team and play there. They go away to college, may even play football there, come back, maybe they coach.

    They just — it's sort of the cycle of football is the cycle of life there. And so I think for a lot of people getting rid of this program seemed unthinkable. But a lot of other parents are saying — parents and community members are saying, we have to remember this town is about more than football and school is about more than football and football cannot be so important that we let this kind of thing happen.


    All right, Kate Zernike on the situation in Sayreville, New Jersey, thanks so much.



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