SAYREVILLE, N.J. — It was the day after the graphic allegations of a hazing ritual involving digital penetration among the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team, a story that has quickly become a cause célèbre, at least in the New York area. The mother of a freshman football player confirmed to SI.com that, according to her son, “It did happen to a few of his friends. It’s not just isolated to one child.”
Though the freshman told his mother he was not victimized himself, he said that five or six seniors were routinely the perpetrators. This dovetails with the account given by a freshman’s father to the Star-Ledger, which described a ritual in which several seniors would pin an underclassman’s hands and feet and then lift him up while forcing a finger into his rectum.
Thursday was another day of national media scrutiny for Sayreville, a middle-class town of 43,000 just 35 miles southwest of Manhattan. Governor Chris Christie said that the Attorney General’s office is looking into the allegations, and that they were “extraordinarily disturbing.” A spokesman from the Attorney General’s office said that it is monitoring the situation but the investigation is still being handled by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office, which has not provided a ballpark timeline.
A group of local families have organized a vigil on behalf of the alleged victims for Sunday night at a park across the street from the school. The event has received 475 RSVPs on Facebook.
“We’re telling them we’re a community that cares, that wants to support them, that we’re here for what they need, and that they’re not alone,” said Maureen Jenkins, a mother of two Sayreville graduates.
Jenkins referenced several parents and former players who adamantly opposed Superintendent Richard Labbe’s announcement on Monday to cancel the season after being informed by prosecutors of “credible and substantial” evidence surfaced of criminal activity, which he did not specify. The next night, at a Tuesday evening school board meeting at which the board voted unanimously to cancel the season, several parents and players belligerently decried the cancellation of the season. One parent, Madeline Thillet, said, “Nobody was hurt. Nobody died. I don’t think the punishment fits the crime.”
Said Jenkins, “I don’t like the way our community was portrayed. The few that spoke out and made it all about football were the minority.”
Since then, parents of football players said that if they knew the specific nature of the allegations on Monday evening, the reaction would have been far different.
“The superintendent was right about what he did, but he could have given us more detail at the parent meeting that it wasn’t just a ‘bullying’ incident,” said Jeanne Mankowski, the mother of a player. “This was way more than just ‘bullying,’ and I think if parents would have been told that, their attitude would have changed.”
Still, not everyone is sure that the specific allegations as reported are 100 percent accurate. Two parents of freshmen told SI.com that their sons told them they had no knowledge of the digital penetration.
One of those parents, Holly Emory, whose stepson is a freshman on the team, said, “I don’t really know what’s blown out of proportion and what isn’t. My son appears to be shocked. He says he never witnessed that. Most kids are saying that it didn’t happen."
“Some of the very vocal parents are saying, ‘There’s no way that happened.’ And maybe the more moderate parents are taking a wait-and-see approach. There are a lot of us that are just so confused and upset by it.”
Emory added, “You’re pretty confident that you know your kids, but there’s still a part of you that knows, ‘You think you know, but you don’t.’”
During school on Wednesday, the football team was pulled into a meeting with the Superintendent that underscored the severity of the allegations. According to the mother whose son confirmed that several of his friends had been victimized, many players were crying during the meeting. Robert Honecker, a former New Jersey prosecutor, told the Star-Ledger on Thursday that the allegations could be considered aggravated sexual assault, which carries a 10 to 20 year prison sentence in New Jersey.
“At first my son didn’t [understand], but he saw how emotional I was. And he was like, ‘Mom, why are you making such a big deal of this?’ So I had to explain to him that it was, like, rape. And I think the meeting yesterday opened his eyes to how wrong it was,” the mother said.
Parents and students say there are additional guidance counselors on hand at the school and even an extra police presence. Some students have described a somber atmosphere around the school. Another said that the episode has become the subject of fascinated gawking among students.
“For now, because we don’t know what’s going on, it’s like it’s more exciting than anything else,” he said. “I don’t think people are gonna realize how serious this is until someone gets punished.”
After school on Thursday, there was a sense among many students that the incident had been misinterpreted and blown out of proportion by the media. Two students, separately, yelled expletives at a reporter while pulling away in cars. One yelled, “Stop interviewing!” at a student and a reporter.
“The media’s gassing this up -- you’re messing with people’s scholarships,” said Joe Materowski, a senior.
“It happens at all the schools, it’s just that it happened to leak out. Why don’t you go to the next town over where the same thing’s happening? You can write a report on that.”
Senior Kierra Ogletree said she didn’t believe the specific allegations. “You know boys, they play around with each other, but come on. We’ve got the best football team in Middlesex County. That stuff doesn’t happen here.”
Alex Martinez, another senior, said the school was split around 50/50 between those who believed the full allegations and those who don’t.
“A lot of people know it’s true. But I asked one of my football player friends and he said that none of this happened,” Martinez said.