Just two weeks ago the high school football team was ready for its first playoff game of the season.
After a dominating, 46-0, win in the final regular season game, the gridiron varsity players were hopeful as they planned to take on a top-seeded 10-1 powerhouse.
Then the bottom fell out.
Allegations of hazing and player abuse cropped up, law enforcement investigations began, and the playoff game was canceled. The team had to lose by forfeit.
No, this was not Wall Township.
These players attend Tamaqua Area High School in central Pennsylvania, some 140 miles west of the Jersey Shore.
But the circumstances harken to the Wall school, where allegations of hazing have prompted a similar investigation, the cancellation of two games, and the suspension of three coaches. Athletic Director Tom Ridoux was placed on administrative leave.
And Wall Township and Tamaqua are not alone.
In just the past few months, investigations of alleged locker room abuse and hazing have been launched in schools from Maryland to New Mexico.
In one case, a Massachusetts high school hockey team came under fire after a player accused teammates of holding him down and taunting him with a sex toy for refusing to use racial slurs on a Black player, according to reports.
A similar incident involving football players at a Maine high school resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the season and the firing of a coach last month.
And in Jefferson County, Colorado, an alleged hazing incident led to criminal charges against a high school athletic director in August for failing to report child abuse or neglect, a local TV station reported.
‘A significant problem’
“Hazing is a significant problem in today’s schools,” said Nancy Gartenberg, a veteran superintendent of the Montgomery Township School District and the South Hunterdon Regional High School District, and a hazing research expert.
“Unfortunately some students see it as a rite of passage for new team members and as an opportunity to prey on more vulnerable or perceived weaker students.”
A 2008 University of Maine study overseen by professor Elizabeth Allan found that 1.5 million high school students are hazed each year and 47% of students came to college already having experienced hazing.
Other hazing experts who have studied the player-on-player abuse and rituals of athletic teams contend it is among the most difficult student acts to prevent because it involves a code of silence.
“Each year it gets worse because the victim just wants to be part of the group, and he sees that he wants to do unto others what was done to him,” said Susan Lipkin, a psychiatrist and author of “Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers, and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation.”
“Adolescents and young adults feel like they are not going to get caught,” she said. “In hazing it happens, and you get away with it every year, so why would this year be different?”
Problem and solutions
Lipkin also oversees Insidehazing.com, which offers up data and solutions.
Her research finds that 48% of high school students who participate in group activities report being subjected to hazing activities, with 43% saying they were forced into “humiliating activities” and 30% performed potentially illegal acts as part of their initiation.
She said that 10% of all college students admit to being hazed in high school and 79% of college athletes report being hazed initially in high school, with 25% stating they were first hazed before the age of 13.
Experts contend that the problem continues because it involves a code of silence and victims who seek acceptance on a team. In contrast, most bullying victims are being abused by an enemy or stranger with no connection.
Among the most memorable cases locally was the 2014 football hazing scandal at Sayreville War Memorial High School in neighboring Middlesex County. The team’s season was canceled, charges were brought, and coaches were suspended for leaving the locker room unattended by adults.
The alleged crimes included kicking, beating and groping younger players, as well as at least one alleged act of sexual penetration.
In all, nine players were charged, but none was sentenced to jail or juvenile detention; they were ordered only to serve probation or community service. No supervising adults faced legal penalties.
Yet bad memories remain, and the Sayreville district is still having to respond after a former player filed a lawsuit against the district in 2020.
The lawsuit charges that the Sayreville Board of Education, coaches and administrators “owed a duty to protect (the plaintiff) and other students from assaults, sexual assault and/or sexual harassment or any other form of physical or psychological trauma” and breached that duty, failing “to perform an appropriate duty of care exercised at similar educational institutions.”
Allan, a professor of higher education at the University of Maine and a hazing researcher: “We really need to do more to shift the culture of group and team behavior, starting as early as possible, certainly by middle school if not earlier.”
She added: “This provides a great opportunity to look at how we can shift the norms. There is a need to build skills and help them to build the skills needed to develop interpersonal relationships that are healthy and positive in their groups.”
The Wall case, which remains under investigation by police, school officials and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, first came under scrutiny nearly two weeks ago, according to parents.
The first public acknowledgment from School Board President Ralph Addonizio occurred last week when he said that an investigation into a “student matter” had begun.
More:Wall HS football hazing probe: Anti-bullying experts say adults need to step up
Also:Wall superintendent blasts ‘misinformation’ around high school football hazing allegations
Since then, two football games have been canceled, three coaches were suspended, and a flurry of accusations and claims have spread across social media.
Athletic Director Tom Ridoux has been placed on administrative leave.
Wall Superintendent Tracy Handerhan sought to ease concerns during Tuesday’s school board meeting by declaring the case had not been “swept under the rug.”
But at that same meeting, where several parents offered anger and complaints, Handerhan stressed that information can only be released once the investigation is completed and nothing involving confidential or personal details can be provided.
Still, claims by some Wall parents that videos of the alleged incident have included physical and even sexual abuse have kept the tensions high.
Moreover, both parents and students have wondered how such alleged conduct can still occur in schools, given efforts in recent years to stop bullying and abuse.
The school district website prominently displays instructions on how to report allegations of “harassment, intimidation, and bullying.”
“Supervision is an issue, one reason it may be happening is, it is allowed in a culture that allows it to happen,” said Paul Boxer, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and former director of the university’s Center on Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice.
“For this kind of behavior to stop the messaging has to come from the people who have the most influence over it — coaches, athletic directors and teachers,” Boxer said. “The kids have to know that the coaches don’t support it.”
Taking a page from #MeToo and Black Lives Matter
Lipkin said the hazing victims need to be able to take a more public stand — like female sexual assault victims and those who have fought the battle for racial equality in recent years.
“Hazing will end when people take a page from the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, and the kids within the teams and the schools say no more, they have to rise up,” she said. “That may mean you change the education to being a leader and a group of people saying they will not do this anymore.”
Edward F. Dragan, an attorney and former manager with the state Department of Education, heads the School Liability Expert Group, which offers experts on school-related social and abuse issues. He said hazing is driven by many issues that make it hard to counter, but not impossible.
“The social and team spirit can be turned around into a negative focused on a vulnerable student who becomes a victim,” he said via email “The climate developed by the coach is extremely important in keeping this in check. We are dealing with a population that still can benefit from guidance, example, and positive role models.”
John F. Doherty, a former superintendent in Reading, Massachusetts, and a member of the Massachusetts Department of Education Safe and Supportive Schools Commission, said part of the problem today is society’s growing divisive atmosphere.
“Our society is becoming more polarized, and differences are not discussed and accepted. In addition, the pandemic created a situation where students had very little interpersonal contact with their peers for 16 months,” he said. “And now, with the re-entry back to in-person learning they need to re-teach themselves how to work together respectfully with others.”
Attorney Dragan said there are solutions.
“In addition to focusing on developing and maintaining a positive climate and one in which hazing is not tolerated, schools need to have a clear student code of conduct that addresses hazing as a violation and specifies consequences,” Dragan said.
He added: “Also, coaches, who are responsible for the safety and well-being of their students, must practice diligence and consistency in supervising students — on the playing field and in the locker room.”