A town that found encouragement in its winning high school football team after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy was left to absorb another blow Tuesday after school officials canceled the season over allegations of bullying, intimidation and harassment among players.
School officials in Sayreville, childhood home of rocker Jon Bon Jovi, made the announcement Monday night during a meeting with the players’ parents. The district already had canceled and forfeited a game that was scheduled last week between Sayreville War Memorial and South Brunswick and announced that the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office was investigating the allegations.
"There was enough evidence that there were incidents of harassment, of intimidation and bullying that took place on a pervasive level, on a wide-scale level and at a level at which the players knew, tolerated and generally accepted," Superintendent Richard Labbe told reporters Monday night. "Based upon what has been substantiated to have occurred, we have canceled the remainder of the football season."
Labbe said he could not discuss the investigation, and the prosecutor’s office has declined to release details. No charges have been filed, but Labbe said Prosecutor Andrew Carey told him there is credible evidence to back up the allegations of bullying and harassment within the program.
Sayreville sits next to the Raritan River and just inland from the Raritan Bay, site of devastating flooding from Sandy in October 2012. The town was one of those targeted by the state for a buyout program, and demolitions began earlier this year to improve flood protection.
Football was a constant through the storm’s aftermath, and the school has won three sectional titles over four years. The news of this season’s cancellation hit students hard Tuesday.
"The football team is, like, the whole school," senior X Ali, 17, said. "It’s big. Everybody likes going to the games."
Asked what he would do now on football game days, Ali replied: "I don’t know what I’m going to do. Just hang out, I guess."
Several students expressed disappointment and, in some cases anger, at Labbe’s decision.
Sam Morris, 15, said he plays on the junior varsity team and would normally have been in pads and on the field Tuesday afternoon. Instead, he faced a wall of microphones and cameras as he walked across the street in front of the school. Morris said he hadn’t seen any of the conduct referred to by the superintendent and said players on the team were "upset, angry, annoyed."
"I understand it’s his decision, but he went a little too harsh on this one," Morris said.
Kishan Patel, a 17-year-old senior, said a lot of students expressed support for the football players during classes and said many felt the alleged incidents were "blown out of proportion."
"It’s all people were talking about all day. … Everybody’s got the football players’ backs," Patel said.
Corinne Kalev, whose daughter attends the middle school adjacent to high school, said football is a big part of fall for the town.
"I think the parents might be more upset than the kids, because this might be these kids’ future," Kalev said. "Some of them are really good players and it seems like because of a couple of kids, the whole team is being punished."
Labbe said Monday he was sending a message with his decision.
"We need all of our student-athletes, all of our students, heck, all students in the state, in this nation, to understand that the one true way to stop bullying is for those bystanders to do the right thing and become up-standers and report to an adult or someone at an authority level of what is going on."
Also last week, an assistant football coach at the high school resigned amid allegations that he possessed steroids. Labbe said at the time that the allegations against the former defensive coordinator were the focus of a separate investigation and were not related to the cancellation of last week’s game.