SAYREVILLE, N.J. — As students return to school Thursday, this community’s emotional wounds remain apparent less than a year after a hazing scandal came to light, marring a storied football program in local and national headlines.
On Monday, prosecutors announced that six of the seven football players charged last year in hazing incidents had either admitted in participating in the sexual assaults of younger players last fall or were found guilty as juveniles of low level offenses stemming from the incidents.
None of the players received jail time and all were sentenced to one or two years of probation and 50 hours of community service. None will be required to register as sex offenders under Megan’s Law — the result of plea deals and legal motions designed to spare them from that provision of the law. One of the teenage defendants awaits trial.
For some in this borough, the sentences seemed too lenient for offenses they felt amounted to rape: One victim had his penis grabbed by an older player and several victims were anally penetrated by the fingers of older players while others on the team held them down and watched.
Among those who thought the punishments were “a slap on the wrist” is Maureen Jenkins, a mother who helped organize a vigil last year attended by hundreds to show solidarity with the unnamed victims. She said she was “shocked and dismayed” when she heard Monday how the cases had been handled by the courts.
“It’s a horrible situation that these poor kids who went through this, unfortunately, have to carry this for the rest of their lives, whereas the ones who did this to them — once they turn 18 — are free and clear of it,” she said Tuesday. “The victims will just have to move forward and hold their heads high.”
The charged players were protected by the state’s juvenile justice system, which is designed to consider the best interests of young defendants and shield them from the harsh punishments that they would be subjected to if they had been tried as adults. Because the defendants were tried as juveniles in Family Court, their identities are not known to the public and the proceedings were closed to the public and media.
There remain some, however, who refuse to believe the players have done any wrong even after the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office for the first time on Monday detailed the attacks that spanned four days last September.
An online petition started last month after attorneys for two of the suspects proclaimed to the press that their clients had been cleared — statements Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey later blasted as misleading — has garnered less than 300 signatures.
Carolyn Porcaro, a mother whose sons play football but were not implicated or involved in the scandal, insisted Tuesday that the players had been found “innocent” because they were cleared of more serious sexual assault charges.
“It’s roughhousing. Hazing? No,” she said Tuesday night after a Board of Education meeting in which Superintendent Richard Labbe and the board president declined to comment on the case or say whether any of the victims or perpetrators would return to school this year. School officials explained that they are prohibited by law from discussing specific students and that they have been asked by Carey’s office not to discuss the case in public.
Speaking to television and newspapers reporters after the meeting, Porcaro criticized one of the victims and accused officials of covering up facts that exculpate the accused players. Porcaro said the public was misled by school officials, some parents and prosecutors, saying her son “was never scared” when he was a freshman player.
“This Board of Education has no compassion at all. They would rather believe that someone was sodomized,” she said. “The kids are being hurt, they are being tortured.”