Hundreds of people came out Sunday evening for an anti-bullying rally in a central New Jersey town that's been rocked by allegations of sex-related hazing involving its high school football team, which prompted the cancellation of the rest of the season and has put the future of the the sports program in doubt.
The rally was staged in a park across the street from the school, Sayreville High. "We need to come together to support each other, our children, our community and most especially the young men who spoke up," organizer Maureen Jenkins said in an emotional speech.
Participants were given balloons, ribbons, stickers and candles. They were asked to walk around the lake at Kennedy Park and release the balloons or show other forms of support.
Alex Simon, 24, a Sayreville native who recently moved to Connecticut to attend law school, said he came home for the event to show support for his community. Simon attended schools in the town and served for a time as a substitute teacher in the school district.
"This will be a long recovery process for our community, but this is a good first step," Simon said of the rally. "I've talked with lots of people (about the hazing claims) and they were upset about it, but I think this event is a good way to start getting things better. I've always loved this town and will always support it."
Seven students face sex-crime charges stemming from the alleged hazing. Three were charged with aggravated sexual assault, criminal restraint, hazing and other crimes stemming from an act of sexual penetration upon one of the children. The other four students were charged with aggravated criminal sexual contact and other crimes.
District officials said Sunday that all seven have been suspended.
No coaches have been charged, and it isn't clear if any knew about the alleged incidents. Superintendent Richard Labbe told NJ Advance Media that coaches who are administrators and teachers at the high school were expected to show up for work on Monday, the first day class was held since the season was canceled.
The severity of the allegations have thrown the future of football programs at Sayreville High School into doubt, Labbe told NJ.com. He said he wasn't sure if football would resume next season, and is awaiting more information on the case from the Middlesex County prosecutor's office.
At least one player on the football team attended the rally. Junior Justin Quitanilla arrived with his family wearing a Sayreville high school game jersey, according to NJ Advance Media.
Asked why more players did not attend, Quitanilla said many of those he approached were "afraid of what others would think about them if they did."
"I'm just here to show support," he said. "Sayreville strong."