As classes resumed in a New Jersey town Monday for the first time since the arrest of seven high school football players on charges of sexually abusing younger teammates, attention turned to whether the state's anti-bullying laws adequately address team sports.
The seven members of the celebrated Sayreville War Memorial High team were charged Friday over behavior that allegedly occurred during a 10-day period last month.
Advocates say New Jersey, which passed an anti-bullying law in 2002 and has added to it since then, is among the leaders nationwide in dealing with the problem. But the laws do not specifically address sports teams.
Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said the allegations have prompted a review.
"We do see this as an opportunity to provide guidance and to take a fresh look at how school districts have not only been responding to hazing and bullying — hazing is certainly part of bullying — but to see what additional best practices" can be put in place, he said.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, whose districts include Sayreville, cautioned against rushing to make changes before all the facts are known.
"The natural question is who was supervising these students so that that can't happen. We don't know that right now," Wisniewski said. "Before we talk about the need to legislate, we should first discuss all the facts, and we don't have all the facts."
The state's high school sports governing body, in its constitution, encourages schools to establish rules on hazing, and schools are also obligated under state law to have anti-bullying procedures. Sayreville's 17-page anti-bullying policy doesn't mention the words "athletics," ''sports" or "coaches."
Steve Timko, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletics Association, said the organization is going to review its rules on hazing and expand its education programs addressing the issue.
Sayreville Superintendent Richard Labbe, who canceled the rest of the school's football season last week over the allegations, said on the "Today Show" Monday morning that administrators have launched an investigation into its entire athletic program to determine if similar hazing incidents have happened on other teams.
Labbe has said he is weighing the future of the football program, which has won three sectional titles in four years and is the pride of Sayreville, a community of about 40,000 people 25 miles southwest of New York City.
"I will say clearly: Whether we have a football moving forward is certainly a question in my mind," he told NJ.com. "Based upon the severity of the charges, I'm not sure."
Three of the students were charged with aggravated sexual assault, hazing and other crimes stemming from an act of sexual penetration against a team member. The four other students were charged with aggravated criminal sexual contact and other offenses.
All seven have been suspended. None have been identified because they are minors.
It isn't known whether coaches at Sayreville knew about the alleged abuse or suspected it was going on.
"Coaches and administrators are often the last to know," said Brendan Dwyer, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Sport Leadership and a former college football coach. "But any time you involve minors, the standards are obviously raised for coaches and administrators. You have to know what's going on."
While many students and residents last week strongly criticized Labbe's decision to cancel the season, the reaction on Monday, three days after details of the alleged attacks were made public, was more sober.
"It just kind a puts a real damper on your view of your town," said Angelo Palma, a 2006 Sayreville graduate. "And your leaders, your teachers, your school. Thinking, wow, I thought I lived in a great town that people really loved each other, cared for each other. And this just shows a lack of care and concern for our neighbors."