Amid cries of disapproval and pleas from players and parents, a New Jersey school district unanimously approved the decision to sideline a powerhouse high school football program for the remainder of the season in the wake of a criminal probe into hazing allegations.
The board that oversees Sayreville High School approved the decision to cancel team activities at all levels – freshman, junior varsity and varsity – just a day after parents were told in a private meeting that the teams wouldn’t play another down in 2014.
The decision comes after Middlesex County prosecutors said they were investigating reports of bullying, harassment and intimidation involving some seniors on the team. Authorities said last week that some of the allegations could constitute as sexual assault.
The school, which won the Central New Jersey Section IV championship three out of the last four years, had already canceled and forfeited a game against South Brunswick last week.
Sayreville Schools Superintendent Richard Labbe said Monday in a statement that the incidents took place "on a pervasive level, on a wide-scale level, and at a level in which the players knew, tolerated and in general accepted.” No single player has been suspended.
Before voting, school board president Kevin Ciak said the decision to cancel the remainder of the season was the right one.
“It’s a sad situation to be in, but I really believe, at the end of the day, when we come back next year, it will be with a stronger sense of commitment and character,” Ciak said.
Tuesday’s school board meeting was regularly scheduled but held in the school’s cafeteria to accommodate the massive crowd. Community members and parents expressed anger with the decision to end the season, while players decked out in blue and gray jerseys and letterman jackets made emotional pleas to the board.
One senior player, Justin Gallagher, told the board that he didn’t think any of his Bombers teammates – who he referred to as “brothers” – would harass or intimidate one another.
“We’re a team," he said. "We stick together and nothing makes me believe anybody’s after each other."
Another senior player, Derek Rodriguez, said a decision takes away from seniors who had wanted to play for the team their whole lives and weren't talented enough to go on to play college football.
“We’re not going to have that closure of finishing our senior year and going out like we wanted to go out,” he said. “It got taken from us for something that we didn’t even know that was going on.”
Parents also voiced disapproval, saying the decision unfairly punishes students who may have not known about the alleged hazing.
Madeline Valet said her son, a team captain, has dedicated himself to the team and was questioned by police about “a butt being grabbed.” She said she didn’t think the players should lose the season.
“No one was hurt, no one was died,” Valet said. “I don’t understand why they’re being punished… I don’t believe the punishment fits the crime.”
Still, school board members all decided to uphold the decision to cancel the season. In their own statements – peppered with boos and catcalls from the audience -- several members explained their reasoning for voting for the cancellation.
School board member John Walsh alluded to the case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after being bullied by a roommate.
“It's sad and it’s terrible and it’s heartbreaking (to cancel the season), I get that," Walsh said. "But it's not tragic. Tragic would be walking in front of the casket of a victim who decided he couldn't take it anymore."
Meanwhile, police are also investigating assistant football coach Charlie Garcia, 38, after they found more than two boxes of steroids and more than a dozen syringes during a traffic stop late last month.
Follow Brynn Gingras on Twitter @Brynn4NY