If you were a high school principal and cancelled the football season because of a hazing event where senior players physically, and maybe sexually, abused freshmen in the locker room, what steps would you take to protect the freshmen against retaliation by other seniors for the premature ending the long-awaited football season and the arrest of seven varsity players?
The freshmen were easy prey in the locker room. They slinked away when the older varsity boys barreled in, blasting their music, shooting each other with Nerf guns and stripping down with the kind of confidence that freshmen could only fake. Intimidated by the older boys, most played invisible. But on the day of the second game of the season, Sept. 19, the freshmen became targets in a pastime very different from football.
“Hootie hoo,” the older players yelled before their home game that night, flicking the lights on and off and on again. Then they tripped a freshman in a T-shirt and football pants, letting loud music muffle any noise the boy made as he fell. Two pinned the younger boy’s arms, while others punched and kicked him — not viciously, but hard enough to matter, two witnesses said. He curled into the fetal position and was groped by his attackers.
What happened during that episode and in three other locker room attacks in subsequent days at Sayreville War Memorial High School prompted the arrest of seven varsity players on hazing and sexual abuse allegations, the cancellation of the football season and another round of introspection about the sport and its recent spate of scandals.
Prosecutors accused three of the players of more serious crimes, including an act of sexual penetration on one victim. But the investigation may be complicated by conflicting accounts of what occurred, according to interviews by The New York Times with two victims and multiple witnesses to three attacks. The task of prosecutors has also been made knottier by the atmosphere of recrimination that has seized the school since the season’s cancellation, with text messages flying back and forth and students dropping names with devastating casualness on social media. The search is on for the snitches — the kids who killed football in Sayreville.
Taken together, the interviews by The Times represent the most detailed public accounting of the hazing so far. All told, four players from the freshman team were set upon between Sept. 19 and 29, often pushed to the locker room floor by a handful of varsity players, when coaches were not around. The older players punched and sometimes kicked the younger ones, pinned them and, at the very least, grabbed their buttocks, the freshmen said. Yet the two victims who spoke to The Times, including one who said he was penetrated from behind with a finger, said they were wearing pants and did not consider what happened to be that serious. A witness to a third attack said the victim was also wearing football pants. The Times did not talk to anyone who saw the fourth attack.
The freshmen may now be minimizing any abuse because of the scorn that has been directed their way. Prosecutors here face a challenge: building a case not on physical evidence, but on the testimony of teenagers who live in a world of often cruel peers, a place where threats of drop-kicking and jumping someone are as common as texting “LOL.”
If freshmen “thought we hated them before we sure as hell hate them now,” a 16-year-old female student wrote on Twitter, hours after the season was canceled. Another girl posted a picture of two trash bins, saying it was a real picture of the freshman football team.
The backlash “made me want to shoot myself,” one freshman player told The Times.
The Times is not naming the alleged perpetrators, victims or witnesses, because they are minors and because of the nature of the charges.
There are still unanswered questions. It is not clear how long this type of hazing has happened at Sayreville, or whether it took a more aggressive turn this year. Richard Labbe, a former football player and Sayreville assistant coach who took over as superintendent this summer, told reporters that the attacks were “pervasive” and “generally accepted.” But several former players who talked to The Times said they had never been hazed or seen it happen.
The circumstances would be daunting for any school district, but Sayreville has had to endure more than its share of controversy recently.
The football team’s defensive coordinator, Charlie Garcia, was arrested last month in a motel parking lot with two boxes of steroids and 14 hypodermic needles in his pickup, the authorities said. And, last spring, a female high school teacher, Jaclyn Melillo, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two male students.
There was also another sports-related scandal with sexual overtones. In 2009, parents and students complained that the school’s wrestling coach had asked boys to strip naked for a ringworm search, boasted about having sex with other teachers at the school and exchanged inappropriate text messages with students, among other troubling allegations. The school board opted to withdraw an offer for him to return as coach.
The coach, never convicted of any crime, later sued for defamation, eventually settling with the school board. He now coaches wrestling at another school. In court papers, he denied the allegations and said that prosecutors had cleared him. Neither he nor lawyers involved in the case responded to messages requesting comment.
School district officials also declined to comment, although they took the unusual step last week of bringing in a crisis-management team to help advise them. The Sayreville police referred all questions to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, which is now considering whether to charge the juveniles as adults. The prosecutor’s office also declined to answer questions, even about whether the groping and penetration happened outside of clothing, and not on bare skin.
Pamela Brause, a lawyer for one of the seven alleged perpetrators in the hazing, said she spoke briefly with her client, who she said was trying to process not only the seriousness of the charges but also the intense media coverage.
“These are children, and usually when they get in trouble, it’s about taking their iPhones away or serving a detention,” Ms. Brause said. “This is a difficult situation for my client and everyone involved. We don’t know what’s real or exaggerated, but there are all kinds of assumptions and judgments out there. We’ve got to let the system work.”
A Sport That United
With about 44,000 people, the town of Sayreville looks like many New Jersey towns: generic strip malls, small rowhouses with neat yards, Cape Cods and colonial houses, and sprawling sports fields that smell of cut grass. But Sayreville has had two things that distinguish it: the singer Jon Bon Jovi, who attended high school here, and football.
Every fall, football united the different corners of Sayreville, the immigrants who cycled through the Winding Wood apartment complex with its jumbled layout and inexplicable numbering system and the families who have lived here for generations. Sayreville had Pop Warner for younger boys, teams like the Leprechauns, but most of all Sayreville had the Bombers and their longtime coach, George Najjar, so revered that his name was invoked with children like Santa Claus. (“Coach Najjar does not like that,” young boys were warned in Pop Warner.)
With almost 20 years at the team’s helm and three sectional championships in the past four years, Mr. Najjar, 62, was the kind of old-school coach who didn’t swear, who favored a dated Wing T offense and told players that he never wanted anyone to embarrass the team, because character meant more than winning. He was not a yelling coach. He had a prominent mustache and used phrases like “put a whupping on teams” and “take your lumps.” He always dressed in Bomber blue and wore a baseball cap over his bald head.
But he also left his teams alone after practice, and he seemed disengaged from anything that did not have to do with football. Mr. Najjar and his assistants rarely came through the locker room, players said. And when Mr. Garcia, the defensive coordinator, was arrested last month, he was back on the sidelines coaching at the game the next day. He later resigned.
This season was always going to be a rebuilding year for the Bombers, who lacked experience and had a sophomore quarterback. But the first game, on Sept. 12, was a decisive win. So was the second, a week later, at home.
That was the day of the initial assault, the prosecutor’s office said.
One witness said he saw an older teenager grope the freshman’s genitals and another older teenager poke fingers up his buttocks, from outside his pants. Another witness said he could not see what happened. The victim jumped up after being held down and started laughing. “You guys never saw anything,” he yelled at his friends.
In a later interview, the victim played down the attack, saying that no one poked him anywhere. He said he was embarrassed by the attack but got over it quickly. “It was just horsing around,” he said.
The order of the attacks that week is not clear. The victim in one of them, who could not be reached for comment, did not smile or laugh. A witness said the older teenagers tackled the freshman, in his football pants, punched him and held him down. The witness could not see what happened, but when the victim got up, he was upset. “Why did they have to do that?” he asked. Later, as the rumors swirled around the school about the hazing and the investigation, he would tell his friends different stories. He would say he fought back, that the varsity players did not take him.
The Times did not talk to the other freshman who was assaulted that week, or any witnesses. Two names of victims have circulated among team members. Parents of one of those players said their son denied being attacked. The Times was unable to reach the other freshman. But on social media, someone seemed to question him about an attack by an older player. Later, after the football season was cut short, that freshman said he was upset about the cancellation.
‘I Don’t Think It Was a Joke’
Some players said they thought that the attacks were just part of being on the team, a way for the varsity players to show that the chosen freshmen belonged to the Bombers family. They said the popular freshmen were targeted, not the weak ones. Yet others were scared of the older boys.
“They think they’re joking around, but I don’t think it was a joke,” a witness to the first attack said. “I said, ‘This is nasty.’ ”
One freshman said his classmates showed their discomfort with the attacks in their body language. “They would look around like, ‘What are they doing?’ ” he said. “It’s weird.”
The weekend came. On that Saturday, Sept. 27, the Manalapan team steamrolled Sayreville, outscoring the Bombers 21-0 in the fourth quarter alone and winning 64-28. It was the most points any opponent had ever scored against Mr. Najjar’s Bombers.
After practice that Monday, Sept. 29, the older students took their fourth victim, who shrugged off the assault. He sheepishly said last week that older players may have grabbed him and prodded his anus with their fingers, but said they did not push him to the floor. He insisted that this was only part of team bonding. “You get your butt grabbed a lot, it wasn’t, like, any big deal,” he said. Later, he explained, “They, like, poke you.”
Soon after, someone told the authorities, and the investigation began. The boys were interviewed, one by one. The initial victim told The Times that he told the police that no one penetrated him from behind.
“The police looked at me and said, ‘You’re lying. We know the story, and you’re lying,’ ” the teenager recounted.
By now, the behavior of the football team has been dissected by the nation, with some quickly suggesting that Sayreville reminds them of the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal, but others cautioning that the rush to punish the young football players reminded them of the hasty judgment of Duke lacrosse players, falsely accused of rape.
For at least one player, one of the team’s stars, the damage may already be done. Two college football recruiting websites reported last week he had lost his scholarship offer to Penn State. The coaches’ futures are also in jeopardy: the school board will discuss their status at a meeting on Tuesday.
Among the students charged, three were held at least initially in juvenile detention; the four others accused of less serious crimes, were released.
When Mr. Labbe told the players in an Oct. 8 meeting with the team in the school auditorium that the season was over, some players wept. One student said that the hazing had been going on for years. Why was the superintendent just doing something about it now? A freshman recounted that Mr. Labbe said: “We just found out about it now.”
Mr. Najjar, the head coach, has not spoken publicly about what he knew. His last public speech came on Sept. 27, after the team’s third game and first loss of the season, the game that turned out to be the team’s last. “It’s a long season,” Mr. Najjar told his team. “We’re going to learn from this, and we’re going to get better,” he said, telling the players they should hold their heads high and walk out of the stadium like the champions they were.