The seven players arrested in a hazing scandal at a New Jersey high school that prompted the district to cancel its football season and suspend the team's coaching staff will be tried as juveniles in family court, prosecutors said Monday.
The players, all of whom are 17 or younger, face charges ranging from hazing and conspiracy to sexual contact in connection with the months-long investigation at Sayreville War Memorial High School. Three of the players were originally charged with aggravated sexual assault, a first-degree crime that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in state prison.
A juvenile court judge would have far more discretion in sentencing the players, if found guilty, than a criminal court judge would. By law, court complaints against juveniles are not public records and cannot be released. Hearings in family court are closed to the public.
"The conduct in which the juvenile defendants engaged was serious and that is why criminal charges were filed," Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey said in announcing his office's decision to try the suspects as juveniles. "Asking the court to waive these seven juvenile cases to adult court would not best serve the interests of the victims, the community or the defendants."
The charged players remain under house arrest and in the custody of their parents.
Prosecutors had previously said the alleged hazing, which they said could have been considered sexual assaults, was "pervasive" at the school. Sayreville boasted one of the top-ranked football teams in the state before its season was cut short amid the allegations in October.
The seven students who were arrested were also suspended from school. The team's coaching staff was suspended as well. Five of the suspended coaches, including head coach George Najjar, are tenured teachers, NJ.com reported. Several others are substitutes.
Shortly after the coaching staff was suspended with pay, the New York Times reported details of the alleged locker room abuse from players who either saw the alleged attacks or said they were victims of it.
The witnesses, who weren’t identified by name, described a boisterous locker room environment that took a dark turn over a 10-day period in September, when all four alleged hazing cases occurred.
The freshmen who spoke to the Times said that during the attacks, older players would come into the locker room shouting “hootie hoo” before flicking the lights on and off and tripping one of the them over. In one case, two older players held a boy down by his arms while players punched, kicked and groped him, according to the report.
The three victims who spoke to the Times varied slightly on their accounts of the hazing. All three said they were wearing football pants, and accounts of the gropings ranged from poking or grabbing of the buttocks to penetration. Of the three victims, two said the hazing wasn't a big deal -- and that what happened was part of team bonding.
Several other freshmen who witnessed the attacks told the Times they rushed to change after practice or avoided showering to make it out of the locker room before the varsity team finished practice.
Some said they became the targets of backlash on social media and in school from other students upset that the football season was canceled. One player told the Times the backlash "made me want to shoot myself."
The case has put a spotlight on the town, known for its successful football program and for being the hometown of singer Jon Bon Jovi, and the way that school districts handle hazing and bullying allegations.
In late October, Eldred Central School District in upstate New York canceled its varsity football team's season finale because of alleged hazing by players. Before that, Long Island's Wyandanch High School suspended five players amid a hazing probe. It's season continued, but was later canceled because a fire destroyed the team's practice gear.