Margaret Eby
October 13, 2014 11:15 am

Last Friday, the central New Jersey town of Sayreville was rocked by the arrest of seven high school football players charges with sexually assaulting their teammates in a locker room hazing ritual. It’s nasty, heartbreaking stuff, hitting particularly hard in a community with a huge support for the football team. What happened, and what’s being done in response? Here’s what we know.

A group of football players, ages 15 to 17, at Sayreville War Memorial High School are charged with sexually assaulting freshman as part of a hazing ritual. The details are pretty awful, but basically the upperclassmen allegedly would signal for their classmates to pin down the freshman recruits as they assaulted them. “Right on the floor. . . . It was happening every day. They would get the freshmen,” one parent told NJ Advance.

Seven players were arrested for the abuse allegations after four victims came forward, though there may be many more. The players are now suspended indefinitely from school as the criminal investigation goes forward.

Rumors of bullying and serious harassment on the team had circulated long before the arrests. Earlier in the week, school superintendent Richard Labbe canceled the football season because of those rumors. This decision spurred serious backlash from the community and players’ parents, as the team has been very successful in recent years, and football culture is a central part of the school. But the Board of Education upheld Labbe’s decision. In recent interviews, he indicated that he may shut down the football program more permanently as a result of the scandal. “The prosecutor said [the abuse] was pervasive and led me to believe that it’s more than one year,” Labbe said.

It’s unclear how much the team’s coach knew of the hazing rituals perpetuated in the locker room. Labbe has been barred from communicating with any of the coaches through law enforcement, but released a statement indicating that head coach George Najjar and other school officials were not aware of the extent of the locker room hazing. But several former players of Najjar recounted hazing rituals when he was at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn in the 1980s.

On Sunday, members of the community gathered to hold a candlelight vigil for victims of the locker room abuse, as well as to call for stronger anti-bullying regulations and enforcement. As one town resident told NJ.com, “High school football is not supposed to be like this.”

(Image via Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

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