Schools Told to Look at Sports, Other Student Activities for Problems

John Mooney | October 23, 2014 | Education
Memo sent to all NJ districts in wake of Sayreville High School scandal offers guidance on resources available for dealing with bullying, hazing

football locker room
In the wake of the Sayreville High School hazing scandal, the state has sent New Jersey school districts instructions for taking a second look at their sports teams and other extracurricular activities for any signs of trouble.

The state Department of Education sent a memo to districts this week that provided a checklist of steps to take immediately, as well as some guidance on what may be coming.

While it did not impose any new requirements, the memo clearly included some signposts to follow in the aftermath of the Sayreville scandal, in which seven senior members of the varsity football team have been criminally charged with abusing freshmen teammates in the school locker room. The team’s coach and assistant coaches, who have been said to be unaware of the locker room activities, have since been suspended with pay.

The state said in the memo that schools should look at any practices where adults were not always supervising students, both in athletic activities and other after-school groups.

“We encourage all schools to use these recent events as an opportunity to ensure students are supervised at all times during extra-curricular and athletic activities, to identify potential bullying and hazing, and to implement best practices to create positive school cultures,” read the memo.

While not unprecedented, such statewide guidance tied to a specific event is rare, maybe not seen since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut in 2012.

The memo sent to schools was signed by the state Department of Education, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association.

State officials have been meeting to discuss how to respond ever since news broke about the Sayreville scandal. Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said last night that more guidance from the state may be forthcoming, as law-enforcement officials and the state’s anti-bullying task force continue to discuss and assess the situation.

In the meantime, Hespe said, it was important to at least get out some reminders about what resources are available.

“We wanted to take the opportunity working with other associations to bring attention to the latest and best information we have,” he said.

“This is not just about supervision,” he added, “but how to identify potential hazing situations and more importantly how to put in place and build a school culture that is proactive.”

The memo explicitly listed a number of immediate steps for districts to take, including some of the following:

Review district policies and codes of conduct for athletes and coaches “to ensure they clearly state the positive behavior that is expected and that bullying and hazing will not be tolerated at school or during school-sponsored events;”

  • Review district policies to ensure that they appropriately address student conduct away from school grounds;
  • Ensure that plans are in place “for effective supervision of locker rooms, school facilities and school grounds before, during and after athletic and extra-curricular events;”
  • Ensure that school leaders, including the athletic director and school principal, “engage with coaches and activity advisors to assess current issues related to hazing, to identify and address areas of concern and to ensure that policies and procedures around this issue are implemented with fidelity;”
  • Review agreements between schools and law-enforcement officials to “ensure all stakeholders fully understand their legal responsibilities to know when and how to report suspected student abuse to law enforcement and child protective services.”