Public speaks out on Wall, NJ high school football hazing, sex assault accusations
WALL TOWNSHIP — It was an evening of anger, passion and revelation at Tuesday night's Wall Township Board of Education meeting, which was dominated by allegations of hazing by the Wall High School football team as well as accusations of sexual assaults involving teen students away from the school - and the district's response.
But, those in attendance and viewing the session online still couldn't get what they wanted: specific answers to just what happened.
Wall Township Schools Superintendent Tracy Handerhan said that the school district contacted law enforcement and the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency when the rumors first started swirling about a locker room assault — but that the initial investigation turned up nothing "concrete."
"We did not stop there. We continued to actively investigate and commenced an internal harassment, intimidation and bullying investigation," Handerhan said.
The district's own investigation was paused once the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office became involved.
Acting Prosecutor Lori Linskey announced earlier Tuesday that her office would be the only law enforcement agency continuing to investigate the accusations that have been described in published reports, but so far, not by any official or law enforcement representative.
Handerhan outlined steps taken by the district so far, including cancellation of the football team's final games of the season, increasing security at the high school and the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County is working with the high school's counselors to provide support for students.
"Our first and foremost commitment is to the well being of our students, your children," Handerhan said, continuing that no accusations were being swept under the rug.
The locker room incident was first reported by NJ.com, citing parents involved in the investigation, who said that six upperclassmen athletes had been seen in a video, pinning down a younger athlete and threatening to sexually assault him with the handle of a mop or broom.
One of the students implicated in the locker room hazing, has also been accused of sexually assaulting at least one girl in an unrelated incident. That student had been released from custody as of Thursday.
During the public comment portion of the night, graduates of Wall High School were among those who shared previous incidents of bullying, that they say happened during their time at the school.
Rebecca King, a member of the Class of 2020, told the board the district failed in its mission to empower all students to lead lives of fulfillment and purpose by providing a safe, caring environment for learning.
"Any student who went or currently goes to Wall High School has found recent events involving the suicide of a student, a large scale sexual assault investigation and the allegations of the football team to be anything but surprising," King said.
"Even as a quiet student who steered clear of the rumor mill I personally witnessed and heard stories of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, bullying, sexual assaults, sexual harassment and teacher/student relationships on a frequent basis."
King accused the administration of continuing a "corrupt pattern" and shrugging off the allegations to save face.
Another former student shared that he was talking publicly for the first time about his own locker room assaults in 1994, by then-members of the football team.
The first assault happened as a sophomore, after an encounter with an older member of the team in a hallway near the locker room, Erick Duchak said.
"He grabbed me, put his hands down the back of my pants and yanked the tail-end of my underwear as hard as he could. With my underwear wedged up my ass, he carried me into the locker room where the football team was suiting up presented to the locker room like fresh kill," Duchak said. "I was dragged across the locker room where I was kicked, whipped with towels, pads and helmets. I don’t know how I got out."
A female resident said that her special needs son was bullied in 2012, by members of the football team into a sexual act - she asked how it was possible that he was taken advantage of.
Board members listened to comment after comment, critical of the way the district handled the situation and their lack of information about what happened.
Many addressed questions to the board, who collectively remained silent.
Board President Ralph Addonizio reminded speakers that the meeting was only for comment, and not for receiving answers to questions.
Creating a firestorm
A number of speakers defended the football program and were upset that the entire team was “punished” with the abrupt cancellation of the last two games, while only several team members were said to be seen on video in the hazing incident.
"The day the news vans were parked out front, if one person from this group would have got out in front of the cameras and not speak about the issue specifically but be able to say 'I represent Wall Township public schools and I can't tell you about these kids and who they are. They're honors students and they're good kids and I've seen them for four years and what you're saying and the allegations out there does not reflect the students and the parents of this school.' Nobody was able to do that for these kids," Michael Bono, whose son is a member of the football team, said.
He said the board created a "firestorm" when it did not designate anyone to speak with members of the team as the investigations got underway, or appoint interim coaches when three were put on administrative leave.
Another township father, Chris Rogers, who said he is a New York City public school teacher and football coach, said the entire team is being vilified.
"As the parent of a player in this program I am mortified as to what has transpired here on all levels. We have put our faith in the administration and the board of this town and you have failed my son and all the other children as well," Rogers said.
Frustration at all levels
Throughout the meeting, Addonizio acted as referee, asking members of the audience to stop shouting comments and questions, most of which were inaudible on the live video stream.
Handerhan did respond to those who shouted questions seeking specifics, that it is frustrating to her and the board that there is no timetable for Prosecutor’s Office investigation.
"I do not have all the details of the investigation. The prosecutor's office, perhaps they do, I don't know. What I do know is if you have any information related to a piece of this investigation please contact the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office," Handerhan said.
Information can also be submitted anonymously to Monmouth County Crime Stoppers by calling their confidential telephone tip-line at 1-800-671-4400 or at monmouthcountycrimestoppers.com.
She also said she heard the message that no child should be afraid of coming to school because of bullying which was a theme of many of the comments.
"No child should be fearful to come to school. That is a clear message that I hear tonight. It is something that is an obvious priority to me," Handerhan said, adding that she took notes during the night's meeting in order to reflect on them.
Board of Education member Russell Gartz submitted his resignation effective immediately before the meeting.
In a letter, Gartz said he was stepping down because the “visceral mean spirited comments” regarding the hazing and assault has made being a member no longer valuable to him and his family."
If you or your child has been bullied at school, contact the Anti-Bullying Coordinator or the Anti-Bullying Specialist in your school district.
More information on bullying can be found at the Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying (HIB) page on the state Department of Education website.