What to Know
- Multiple students at a New Jersey high school have been criminally charged in the wake of an investigation in hazing among the school's football team
- At least four students were suspended in the fall when the school's athletic director was placed on leave, multiple coaches were suspended and games canceled
- The charges filed include hazing, attempted criminal sexual contact, criminal sexual contact, false imprisonment and harassment
A widespread investigation into alleged hazing practices involving a New Jersey high school football team has now led to criminal charges against "a number" of teenaged students involved.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office announced juvenile complaints stemming from incidents occurring inside the Wall Township High School football team's locker room between September and October of last year. The charges filed include hazing, attempted criminal sexual contact, criminal sexual contact, false imprisonment and harassment.
Additional charges of aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault have been filed against a juvenile for alleged actions occurring outside of school.
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An attorney for one of the students charged said it was "unprecedented and grossly irresponsible" for the prosecutor's office to release the information related to the juvenile charges, and disputed the allegations of any sex crimes.
"There is absolutely nothing sexual about anything that happened in the videos or in the locker room and we look forward to proving that. This was wrestling and sophomoric behavior by 15, 16 and 17 year old boys before football practice in front of the coaches — if there was anything sexual the coaches would have stopped it but they didn't because it was nothing more than horseplay," attorney Christopher Adams said in a statement to NBC New York. "Adding a baseless sex charge is not only unsupported by facts, but nothing more than playing politics and pandering to the media."
Adams went on to go after the state's acting attorney general as well, saying that if Andrew Bruck approved the release of the information regarding juvenile charges, "then he's proven that he doesn't support the administration's juvenile justice reforms and is not qualified" for the position."
While the number of students facing criminal charges is not known, they follow the suspensions of four students athletes late last year by school administrators. The suspensions at Wall High School came at two separate times, once immediately after reports of bullying and hazing surfaced, and then at least a week or so later.
The student suspensions also came after the high school's athletic director was placed on administrative leave, multiple coaches were suspended and games were canceled. It follows multiple heated school board meetings that have taken place since the allegations came to light earlier in November.
"While no information is released regarding most juvenile cases, the Prosecutor’s Office is releasing the above information today in response to intense public scrutiny regarding these matters and a high degree of misinformation circulating with regard to them, as well as in order to educate and inform the community regarding the seriousness of such conduct," the prosecutor's press release stated Monday.
The prosecutor's office launched an investigation into the locker room incident in which parents say was captured on cellphone video.
"We are hopeful that the lessons gleaned from this case foster a renewed focus on actively teaching juveniles in all of our schools what conduct crosses the line of acceptability, and what students must do if they are a bystander or victim of hazing, harassment, intimidation, or bullying," the release from Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Lori Linskey said.
Wall Township Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tracy Handerhan and other school officials have repeatedly said that they cannot comment because of the ongoing investigation. Handerhan has detailed what the district has done since the allegations emerged.
Some parents say they were angry at the fact that the entire football team is being punished over the allegations surrounding about six players. One admonished the district for cancelling the playoff and Thanksgiving games after a year when students already lost so much due to the pandemic.
At one of the meetings in the fall, many angry parents wanted to know why they found about about the allegations from the news and not the school, asking when district officials first found out. Among the people who took to the mic were former students who say hazing has long been part of the school and that they were bullied years ago.
Eric Duchak detailed being dragged across the locker room floor as well as being kicked and hit with towels, pads and helmets.
"I have held that with me for 27 years," Duchak told the school board. The alumnus called the latest allegation of several football players threatening to assault a younger classman with a broomstick part of an ongoing culture.
And so does Marilyn Clayton, a mother of a former student with Down syndrome. She says her son was bullied into a sexual act by members of the football team in 2012.
"This happened to my son, my son, and it was swept under the carpet," Clayton said.
Families of other players — who have not been implicated in the hazing incidents — have also hired an attorney to protect their children's reputations. The lawyer said in a letter to the superintendent that the tickle effect of new suspensions perpetuates a feeling of helplessness for those only guilty by association and proximimty.
"If there is a danger to any member of the school body, don't you think law enforcement would have arrested somebody by now?" said attorney Chris Gramiccioni.
The lawyer's letter also warned that suspensions shouldn't be used to send a message to the community or quell public outcry, as the consequences could be too dire.
"When kids are suspended, you cannot unring that bell, they lose out on valuable educational time," he said.
While some parents are seeking to protect their children, others approve of the suspensions.
"I do believe suspension is the only way to handle this because that teaches other kids, 'Oh my goodness, something like this, we better watch it,'" said Nancy Kowalsky, who said her son was bullied years ago at the school, although not by football players.
A total of three coaches for the Wall High School football team have been suspended, sources told NBC New York, including head coach and business teacher Tony Grandinetti. He and two others were placed on administrative leave.
So far, one school board member has resigned, citing the hazing allegations as the reason.