Hazing cancels Sayreville, N.J., football season: Does culture contribute to abuse?

As more details of the nature of the alleged sexual abuse in the New Jersey football program become known, a debate widens about the damage that can come from behavior often dismissed as 'initiation.'

Mark R. Sullivan/Home News Tribune/AP
Audience members react as the Sayreville Board of Education holds a press conference at the Selover School in South Amboy, N.J., to address a hazing incident that 'went too far.' On Monday, Superintendent Richard Labbe said the Sayreville War Memorial High School football season has been canceled amid allegations of harassment, intimidation and bullying among players.

Amid a criminal investigation into possible hazing and sexual violence among high school football players, the town of Sayreville, N.J., is facing a season with no more football.

The decision by Sayreville Superintendent of Schools Richard Labbe to cancel the season Monday night brought an uproar from some parents, worried that innocent students who may depend on football for college scholarships would be unfairly punished.

[Update: On Friday night, seven students were charged with sex crimes in connection with a series of assaults Six of the seven students, ranging in age from 15 to 17, were arrested Friday night, and the seventh was being sought, police and prosecutors said.

But as details of the allegations at War Memorial High School spread in the news media this week, the town has become the stage for a broader public conversation about the detrimental nature of behaviors that experts say are too often dismissed as “tradition” or “initiation.”

About 47 percent of high school students experience some form of hazing, but only 8 percent apply that label to it, a landmark national study found in 2008. Among high school boys, 26 percent experience sexual violence from their male peers, the Journal of Youth and Adolescence reported in 2009.

A parent of one of the players in Sayreville told NJ Advance Media Wednesday that this fall, freshmen players were repeatedly attacked in the locker room by upperclassmen, who would physically restrain their target and assault him anally. 

The school district has directed questions to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office, and a spokesman there told the Monitor he cannot comment beyond confirming there is an “active investigation.”

The initial negative reaction by many in the town when the season was cancelled may stem from confusion over the language in New Jersey’s statutes such as intimidation, harassment, and bullying, says Parry Aftab, an attorney and anti-bullying expert based in Fort Lee, N.J. Some people may not have realized how serious the allegations were.

But some who hear the allegations in such cases are still inclined to excuse the behavior and, instead, blame the victims for coming forward, says Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy in the Washington office of Futures Without Violence. “This in no way can be tolerated. This is not hazing, this is child sexual abuse and we need to call it what it is,” she says.

The case highlights that education about respect, decency, and standing up against violence needs to start at a young age, Ms. Stewart and others say. But there also needs to be tough scrutiny of what any adults may have known about the case – whether current or former coaches, parents, or former players.

Superintendent Labbe told football players’ parents that school officials were not aware of any bullying or hazing before players came forward late last week, NJ Advance Media reports.

It’s important that students have access to anonymous reporting methods for more of them to come forward about bullying, hazing, and sexual assault, Ms. Aftab says.

The society “can’t just look at it as some anomalous thing that happens in some aberrant group,” but instead “we have to look at aspects of our culture that can create a climate where something like this is able to occur,” says Elizabeth Allan, president of Stop Hazing and a professor at the University of Maine in Orono.

One such factor is “the social construction of masculinity,” Professor Allan says, in which there are  “lots of rewards for being seen as strong, tough, heterosexual…. One way to reinforce power and status and hierarchy in a group is to engage [male peers] in behaviors that would call into question their masculinity.”

In this case, if the allegations are true, she says, it will be more obvious to people that the behavior was physically forced, but in many instances of hazing, people think victims are going along with it because they don’t understand the coercion at play. “The kids know that if they don’t [go along with hazing] they are likely going to be seen in a different light.”

Education about how to speak up or intervene as a bystander in such situations is spreading into more high schools and middle schools around the country.

Sayreville community members are organizing a Sunday evening vigil to show support for the victims of the alleged hazing and raise awareness.

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