By Steve Kallas
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By now you probably know that seven members of the Sayreville High School varsity football team have been arrested and charged with serious crimes in the alleged sexual assaults of at least four freshman football players.
This week, SNY TV produced a one-hour special, ably hosted by Chris Carlin, that discuseed numerous angles of the "Scandal in Sayreville," which will be re-aired on SNY at 6:30 pm on Friday and 7 pm on Saturday. (Full disclosure, this writer is one of the panel members on the show).
There are, of course, emotions running high on both sides: those who are furious that the varsity, junior varsity and freshman football seasons were canceled and those who are shocked and appalled at the notion that, if the allegations are true, kids were sexually assaulting other kids with, apparently, no coach with knowledge that anything was going on.
TRIED AS JUVENILES OR ADULTS?
From a potential criminal liability perspective, specifically in terms of potential sentencing, arguably the biggest battle is whether these kids, ranging in age from 15-17, will be charged as juveniles or adults.
As you might imagine, the differences in potential sentencing if convicted are astronomical. At the high end of the charges, for crimes like aggravated sexual assault and aggravated assault (the accused are charged with holding down and digitally penetrating freshman football players), if tried as adults, players can be sentenced for up to 10 or even 20 years in prison. If tried as juveniles, the sentences are far more lenient.
Three of the seven are charged with the most serious crimes, but the other four are also charged with various crimes that have a huge disparity in potential sentencing. For example, the crime of criminal restraint comes with a three- to five-year sentence if one is tried and convicted as an adult, but only up to a 60-day sentence if one is tried and convicted as a juvenile.
Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey has stated that the factors he must consider in making this decision include the seriousness of the crime, the history of the juveniles involved (first-time arrest?) and the wishes of the victim(s).
Most telling for the Sayreville case, Mr. Carey told CBS 2's Christine Sloan the following: "If you put somebody in jail for a significant time, they're not going to come out of jail a better person. There's a chance we can help everybody involved and help Sayreville to heal and to move on from this."
That's a very strong statement that would seem to indicate that Mr. Carey is leaning towards treating these kids as juveniles and not adults. While Mr. Carey has a couple more weeks to decide this issue, this may be the time where some of the seven charged would at least consider, with their parents and attorneys, making a deal with the prosecutor.
FRESHMEN VICTIMIZED AGAIN AND AGAIN
One disturbing factor in this case is that there were far more than four victims on the freshman football team. For example, there are a number of published reports that state that many freshmen were afraid of the upperclassmen, that they would dress outside of the locker room, that they would not take showers or take them very quickly to get out of the locker room.
While the four victims, if true, were the most victimized, all of these young kids were victims in varying degrees.
But it would seem that all of these freshmen were further victimized by having their season canceled by the superintendent and the school board. A number of parents of varsity players vehemently stated at school board meetings that their kids, who did nothing wrong, should not be punished. But there seems to have been no outcry on behalf of the freshmen; no discussion, at least publicly, about whether the freshman season should have continued. While there seems to be a general view among objective people that the varsity program had to be totally shut down, one cannot find any discussion, article, blog post, anything, on the freshman football team.
Would the community have rallied around a freshman team that was allowed to play after at least four of its kids were victimized by upperclassmen?
Well, that's something we will never know. But, at a minimum, that should have been considered separate and apart from any decision with respect to the varsity team.
Some freshmen have been victimized for a third time. According to published reports, the names of a couple of the accusing freshmen have been bandied about on social media. One can only imagine the grief they are getting. One kid told the New York Times that the backlash "made me want to shoot myself."
So, while people can hope and say that the community should all get behind these freshmen and support them, the reality is that's a pipe dream. While all should be done to protect them, mentally and physically, the truth is, when someone has the courage to come forward, they are going to be vilified by certain members of the community. Like it or not, that's just the way it is -- in Mepham, Long Island, in Steubenville, Ohio and, yes, in Sayreville, New Jersey.
WHAT ABOUT THE COACHES?
At best, they were totally ignorant of what was going on. Apparently, George Najjar, a Hall of Fame coach in New Jersey, simply had no idea that any of this was happening. While it's hard to believe that no coach (apparently the head coach had 12 assistants in his football program) knew anything about any of this, if they didn't, then, at a minimum, they are guilty of some kind of non-feasance, of some kind of lack of supervision.
While five of these coaches, who are also tenured teachers (Coach Najjar is a physical education teacher), have been suspended (with pay), it's hard to believe that they will be allowed to return to coaching football at Sayreville if the allegations are true. Whether they keep their teaching jobs is a separate and more difficult issue.
According to one published report at NJ.com, Coach Najjar told his team the day before the first cancellation of a varsity football game, "I don't trust you guys anymore." It seems that the coach believed that the players should police their own locker room and that he was rarely, if ever, in it. Apparently, the coaches' room is separate and apart from where the players dress for practice and games.
Many other coaches have opined that, in 2014, it's hard, if not impossible, to leave kids alone as they dress and undress before and after practices. Najjar, who has been coaching for at least 30 years, maybe didn't realize the changing dynamics of youth sports in the 21st Century.
But it seems clear that somebody should have been there in a supervisory capacity. "Where were the coaches?" is the common refrain one has heard from many people.
Najjar has made no substantive comment on these allegations. Presumably, he has either consulted with or hired an attorney who has advised him not to say anything.
WHAT ABOUT STATE-MANDATED ANTI-BULLYING TRAINING?
Part of the coaches' defense, and none of them have been charged with anything, at least as articulated by an assistant coach at this past Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, is that the coaches were never given required anti-bullying training. New Jersey has one of the toughest (some would say the toughest) anti-bullying laws in the country, revised as recently as 2011 to spell out what has to be done.
A review of the law and a review of the Sayreville School District's website shows that, at least on paper, these changes have been implemented. Indeed, with respect to training, Sayreville War Memorial High School gave itself A 9 out of a possible 9 rating in its 2014-15 "Anti-Bullying Self-Assessment Ratings" for "Training on the BOE-approved HIB Policy" (that would be the Board of Education-approved Hazing, Intimidation and Bullying Policy).
Of course, we are probably all skeptical of "self-assessments." But this should not be hard to prove one way or the other. If these coaches were not trained, that's a big problem for the school district.
ARE YOU A CONSPIRACY THEORIST?
Arguably the most shocking claim at Tuesday's Board of Ed meeting was set forth by assistant coach Robert Berardi, who accused Superintendent Richard Labbe of "celebrating" the demise of the football team and its coaches, saying Labbe said things like "we finally got them" and "they're done."
While that charge seems far-fetched and was totally rejected by the superintendent and the board, it turns out that the superintendent started as a teacher at Sayreville in 1990 and was an assistant football coach there in the early '90s. The conspiracy theory goes that the superintendent was apparently relieved of his coaching duties in 1994 -- when present coach Najjar came to Sayreville and took over the football program.
The superintendent does seem like somebody who really cares about the kids and the school district. While it's a stretch to this writer that such a thing would happen, there will be conspiracy theorists out there, as well as people who hold the cancellation of the season against this superintendent, who will believe that this was a vindictive guy settling an old score.
Again, hard to believe.
RUN TO THE HILLS, PENN STATE
One of the unjust (at this time) outcomes of the scandal in Sayreville is what has happened to the football team's star running back. He had accepted, at least verbally, a scholarship to Penn State to play football next year. While it's not clear that he is one of the seven charged (reports are that there was police activity at his house the day six of the seven were arrested), Penn State went ahead and stated that he no longer has a scholarship offer from the school. Apparently, that's the case whether he was involved or not.
But this is really disgusting. Whether charged or not, this kid has been found guilty by Penn State. Unfortunately for him, Penn State, in the wake of the horrific Jerry Sandusky scandal, is probably the worst school in the country to have a scholarship from when these kinds of Sayreville accusations exist. Not surprisingly, Penn State ran the other way when it got even a sniff of the allegations.
So this kid is guilty until proven innocent. And even if he's proven innocent (or not even charged), he apparently has lost his chance to play at Penn State. a sad state of affairs.
HERE COME THE LAWSUITS?
The pink elephant in the room, of course, is the specter of lawsuits coming down the pike. At least one victim was scheduled to meet with a top New Jersey lawyer, according to a published report. That lawyer has already categorized the attacks as "rape."
So you have the possibility of victims suing the school district (deep pockets there), maybe the coaches, maybe the perpetrators. The three victims in the Mepham case sued that school district and settled, according to one of the attorneys in that case, for "lots of money."
If the coaches get fired, or even if they believe they have been wrongly suspended, they may very well wind up suing the school district and/or others.
If the lawyers want to make it really sticky, they may wind up suing Board of Education members and/or the superintendent individually (whether they can recover in that capacity is a different issue), in addition to the school district.
Well, obviously, the whole thing is a mess. But it would seem, that with proper supervision, all of this could have very likely been avoided.
This is another wake-up call for school districts in general and coaches in particular. While nobody believes that coaches are responsible for watching their players 24/7, it seems clear that, at a minimum, what goes on in the locker rooms of America has to be supervised and monitored by those in charge.
Whether that's a coach or some kind of security guard or an "anti-bullying specialist" (who had to be hired under the New Jersey law) remains to be seen.
But something has to be done.
And the time is now.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @NYSportsPlus
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