The Sayreville Board of Education cancelled the varsity football team’s Thursday night game last week for what was described by Superintendent Richard Labbe as inappropriate conduct of a significant and serious nature within the football program. On Tuesday, the Board of Education cancelled the entire season in midst of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office continued investigation into potential criminal conduct that occurred within the Sayreville football program.
ABC news reported that the allegations included younger kids of the Sayreville football team being routinely taunted, bullied and intimidated by the older players, often with “sexual overtones.” On Wednesday, nj.com published an exclusive article of specific allegations of sexual assault from an anonymous parent of a Sayreville football player. The article describes an almost daily locker room ritual of senior football players sexually assaulting freshman football players during this season as follows:
It came without warning.
It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off.
In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.
If these allegations are true, you can expect there will be criminal indictments for the perpetrators and civil suits against the school. The school’s potential exposure to civil liability for the criminal actions undertaken in the football locker room will hinge on the answers to the following questions:
Does Sayreville Have In Place an Anti-Harassment Intimidation and Bullying Policy?
New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, requires that schools take consequential and preventative action against harassment, intimidation and bullying (“HIB”). This includes the school being required to have in place an effective anti-harassment, intimidation and bullying policy. An effective HIB policy will contain consequential measures which will include penalties such as admonishment, suspension, detention, legal action, expulsion, etc. Proactive remedial measures are also required in order to prevent incidents of harassment, intimidation and/or bullying. These required preventive measures include such things as public reporting, regular review of policies, instruction, training and the school conducting prompt, thorough and complete investigations into any allegations of harassment, intimidation and/or bullying. As a result of the allegations being reported, any investigation will include a thorough review of Sayreville’s anti-harassment, intimidation and bullying policy to determine whether it was in place and where it broke down in preventing the incidents from happening in the first place.
What did the Sayreville Football Coaching Staff and School Administration know about Bullying within the Football Program and when did they know it?
It has been reported that the staffers at Sayreville War Memorial High School were not aware of what is being described as “widespread” and “pervasive” incidents of bullying within the football program. Whether this is true is undoubtedly one of the issues being investigated by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office and will be investigated in any future civil action. Under New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, the school is required to investigate all acts of harassment, intimidation and bullying. The school is also required to have systems in place for reporting incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying. Once an allegation of harassment, intimidation and bullying is made, the school has a legal responsibility to promptly, thoroughly and completely investigate the allegation. Investigators will most likely inquire as to whether any of the alleged victims or other witnesses notified school officials of any incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying within the football team. This inquiry should not be limited to allegations of sexual assault, but should include any complaint of verbal, physical or psychological hazing or abuse, including cyberbullying, within the school system and more specifically, the football team.
If the Sayreville Football Coaching Staff and the School Administration was unaware of the Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying within the Sayreville Football Program, why?
One of the main goals of the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Acts is to prevent incidents of harassment, intimidation and/or bullying from happening in the first place. One former player who graduated in 2003 recently stated that the Sayreville coaching staff rarely supervised players in the locker room on practice or game days during his playing days. The answer to whether a staff member was in the locker room during any of the alleged incidents will certainly be a difficult one for Sayreville to ultimately answer. If the answer is yes, the school would presumably have prior knowledge of the incidents, despite the school’s denial of same. If the answer is no, then Sayreville would be essentially admitting to negligence.
One thing for sure is that the investigation and media scrutiny into the Sayreville Football scandal will continue until questions such as these, as well as many others, are fully answered and remedial measures are undertaken to prevent an incident of this type from ever happening again. If true, the bullying, hazing, sexual abuse, and physical abuse suffered by the freshman victims of the Sayreville Football program should be a lesson to all of how dangerous and irresponsible it can be to leave children unsupervised and/or unmonitored.
Smith Eibeler, LLC is law firm located in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. Our New Jersey lawyers practice in the area of school bullying throughout the State of New Jersey, including Monmouth and Middlesex Counties.