Question Looms in Sayreville: Did Race Play a Role in Hazing Case?

Tony Dokoupil, NBC News, October 30, 2014

The rumor uncoiled slowly but now it’s snaking through the minds of many black residents in this historically white factory-town.

On October 10 police arrested seven varsity football players on hazing and sexual abuse allegations. Prosecutors accused three of the players of more serious crimes, including an act of sexual penetration, and the school district cancelled the rest of the football season.

But even as the case became a national sensation, officials largely refused to comment, prompting residents to come up with their own explanation for how seven seemingly good kids got in so much bad trouble.

One of the leading theories, spread by social media and weekends still warm enough for neighbors to gather, is almost as unsettling as the charges themselves: the seven kids are black, their victims are white, and Sayreville is a borough veined by racism.

People are wondering, would seven white teenagers have been so swiftly arrested and charged with assault and sexual abuse? Would the superintendent have taken the extraordinary step–unheard of in New Jersey history–of canceling the season before there’s even a verdict?

“I can 100 percent say that none of this would have happened if white kids were involved,” said Isaiah Roberts, a black Sayreville grad who played on last year’s team with the seven accused players. “They stick together, the white kids, and the white teachers. We’re outnumbered.”

In a statement to NBC News, Middlesex County prosecutor Andrew Carey said that race did not play a role in “the commencement of the investigation” or “the decision to bring charges.” His office and the school district would not comment on whether the rumor about the ethnicity of the accused minors and their alleged victims is true, although it was confirmed by several sources close to the football team.

Alarm about racism is by no means a universal sentiment in this community of 45,000, a faded manufacturing hub about an hour south of New York City. Several recent white players told NBC News that racial animosities had nothing to do with these new charges, and local officials have sought to squash the rumors, reassuring residents that Sayreville has a color-blind justice system.

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The arrest of seven reportedly black students would be sensitive for any school district, but Sayreville has an unusually monochrome history. Three decades ago, it was 98.5 percent white, according to state census data. By 2012, the most recent year anyone counted, the white majority had fallen to less than 70 percent.

It’s still a worker’s town, and a soldier’s town, a proud place where American flags tut-tut in the October wind. But as housing projects have closed in nearby East Brunswick, and black families have fled Newark, it has also become a multiethnic town. The black population alone has grown 73-fold since 1980, from 65 to 4,800 people. A third of that increase has come in the last decade, and many in the black community report a less than welcoming vibe.

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School administrators, the school board, and district officials declined to discuss the alleged racism on the record, much as they have declined to discuss the hazing allegations. Such silence is in part legally required because the accused are minors, but the lack of information has sent suspicion worming through people’s minds.

It’s been unchecked by facts and fed by apparent weaknesses in the public version of events, including questions about whether freshman and seniors would have even overlapped in the locker room on the 4 days when assaults are alleged to have occurred.

Race seemed far from people’s minds in the early days of the scandal. The allegations seemed air-tight and totally heinous, according to local newspaper accounts. On Wednesday October 1st a parent went to the Sayreville police department with a story of extreme hazing, and by Monday the 6th Superintendent Richard Labbe announced that the Bombers would forfeit their remaining five games.

He told reporters there was “credible and substantial evidence” of pervasive, possibly criminal levels of bullying within the team, and the school board unanimously backed his decision. The investigation itself was sealed, but sordid details emerged in the media, attributed to anonymous parents.

“A freshman football player would be pinned to the locker room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen,” according to an account one player’s father provided to NJ Advance Media. “Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.”

The day before the seven kids were arrested, no one, in more than a dozen other conversations with NBC News, mentioned race, and most believed that something bad had indeed gone on inside the Sayreville locker room. But in the weeks since, this publicly available story has appeared to soften, shift, and fracture.

The parent quoted in the NJ Advance Media story called the hazing an “everyday” occurrence, a fact echoed by the superintendent. But when the seven kids were taken into custody, they were charged in only four incidents in a 10-day period.

The parent quoted in the NJ Advance Media story also presented the hazing as a kind of public sodomy, but in interviews with the New York Times two of the alleged victims laughed off the assaults as normal locker room stuff. The initial victim told The Times that no one penetrated him from behind.

“The police looked at me and said, ‘You’re lying. We know the story, and you’re lying,’ ” the teenager recounted. Witnesses to a third alleged assault also said the victim was wearing football pants and bounced up laughing.

“We took it as a joke,” one witness, a freshman, told NBC News. “The cops didn’t want to hear anything but what they wanted to hear.

There are unknowns about the nature of all four alleged assaults, and doubts about whether, in the cruel culture of high school, any denial can be taken as the untainted truth. But accounts like these are crackling through the school, and the result is a gathering cloud of doubt. Skeptics wonder how a single tip from a parent could, in less than a week, topple the team and knock seven black lives off course, perhaps irrevocably.

Many people close to the Sayreville football team have denied that anything happened at all. Others, when asked about hazing, answer with a little smile and a far off look in their eyes. Yeah, they admit, there’s some hazing in Sayreville but it’s no different from any other high school football program.

Isaiah Roberts, who played last year with the seven accused, recalled kids getting dragged into the shower one day, fully clothed. Anthony Carey, a black 2007 grad, recalled getting tied up in the locker room for a couple hours. “Maybe some kids got their hair dyed blonde,” added another 2013 grad who played with the seven accused. “I don’t think these seniors did anything.”

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“Out of a predominantly 90 percent white football team, how is it that all seven kids arrested are black,” said one black resident of Sayreville, the relative of a current varsity player. “This is a racial attack,” she continued, and some of the white families agree.

“This truly is a travesty,” said one white resident, the relative of a current player and mother to a rising player. “It appears the Board of Education is smearing a good man at the expense of young innocent black men.”

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