The Sayreville War Memorial High School Bombers football team were a major bright spot in their New Jersey town in the tough years after the devastation of 2012's Superstorm Sandy. Three sectional titles over four years, for example, gave locals lots to cheer about.
But on Monday, the team had its entire season suspended after allegations surfaced about hazing, bullying, teasing and intimidation among players on the squad. The announcement was made Tuesday night during a meeting with players' parents, according to ESPN.com. The decision came a week after the district canceled and forfeited a game with South Brunswick amid news that the Middlesex County prosecutor's office was investigating the bullying allegations.
What is the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team accused of?
"There was enough evidence that there were incidents of harassment (including sexual), of intimidation and bullying that took place on a pervasive level, on a wide-scale level and at a level at which the players knew, tolerated and generally accepted," Superintendent Richard Labbe said on Monday night without going into specifics. "Based upon what has been substantiated to have occurred, we have canceled the remainder of the football season." That decision put an end to a string of 20 straight playoff appearances.
Was the punishment set for the Bombers football team too harsh?
The prosecutor's office has declined to discuss the details of its investigation and Labbe said he could not reveal the focus of the probe.
"We can set the standard right now for all kids for all school districts in Middlesex County, in the state and in the nation that we are not going to stand around and allow kids to do this to one another," Labbe said. "We are going to start holding our students responsible for doing the right thing and reporting these kinds of behaviors. I believe with every fiber of my body that the only way we are going to stop bullying is if we get the kids to go to an adult or to the authorities."
Students still support the team even in light of the disturbing allegations.
SI.com reported that by October 2, investigators had enough evidence to compel administrators to cancel last week's game against South Brunswick, just hours before kickoff, including allegations that some upperclassmen had "digitally penetrated underclassmen" on the team.
Kishan Patel, a 17-year-old senior, said a lot of students were expressing their support for the football team's players during classes in what would have otherwise been a Spirit Week leading up to Friday's homecoming game. "It's all people were talking about all day," Patel said. "Everybody's got the football players' backs."
On Tuesday night, parents and students packed into a school board meeting at Sayreville High demanding answers about the season cancellation, according to ABC News. In addition to this and last week's games, five others will be forfeited as a result of the probe.
"While it was a difficult decision, I understand how the seniors feel not to have that last game, not to walk out on the field for the last time with their mom and dad," Labbe said. "But based up on the information I received, the right decision that I knew in my heart was to make the one we made."
Why did prosecutors get involved?
The unanimous vote in support of Dr. Labbe's decision angered some parents, but others likely cheered the decision. The investigation was opened after someone called police to report the alleged abuse, according to an unnamed local official. "It was a parent of a younger kid being taunted, threatened, bullied," the official said. The younger members of the squad were allegedly taunted, bullied and intimidated by older players on a regular basis, often with teasing that had "sexual overtones."
"They would live in fear of seniors and juniors," the official said. "They would race to the locker room to get changed and get out before the older kids got there."
But with all the players on the school's varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads affected by the decision, there were parents who objected to the season forfeiture, angry that some of the students might miss out on opportunities for college scholarships or possible NFL careers. "I don’t understand why they’re being punished," local mother Madeline Valet said at Tuesday’s meeting. "The forfeited game was punishment enough."
The move came one week after an assistant football coach at the school, Charlie Garcia, resigned over allegations that he possessed steroids; that incident is the focus of a separate investigation.
Have you been a victim of bullying? Head over to StopBullying.gov for help and resources.