A year after his actions started a national conrvesation about hazing in high schools, Sayreville schools superintendent Richard Labbe addressed his peers yesterday at a conference titled “Beyond Hazing: The Impact of Athletics and Extracurricular Activities on School Climate and Culture.”
Labbe first came into the public eye when he canceled Sayreville’s football season, suspending students and coaches alike, after he learned that the police were investigating possible hazing on the team.
He spoke without notes for more than an hour to an audience of some 200 school leaders and coaches — accompanied only by a slide show of notable moments and events — offering his first extensive public comments as to how he came to his decisions and what followed.
He was assured and candid, sharing the sentiments of those who still want his head but also discussing what he called the core reasons for his decisions: the welfare of his students.
At the end, Labbe appeared especially touched by the standing ovation that closed his talk.
The following are excerpts from his talk and his step-by-step reconstruction of the first days of the crisis, delivered to the conference held at the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association in Monroe and co-hosted by the New Jersey Department of Education.
The media “siege”
Starting with the day he cancelled the first game, Labbe said the media onslaught was remarkable.
“It was not just our high-school parking lot or our district parking lot, it was our elementary parking lot. News 10, NBC News New York, Channel 9, you name it, it was everyone under the sun. We were under siege.”
“We were getting calls from parents as to why [the media] is harassing us, what is going on … We figured what better way to pull the media away from our schools than to call a press conference and bring them all to central office, and we planned it out that it would occur just before high school was to dismiss and we would keep them there until our elementary schoolkids were gone.”
“Here I am, I can barely manage a board meeting, and here I am, I am going to have to give a press conference. It was beyond surreal.”
The Memorandum of Agreement
Labbe said one of the first documents he turned to was the annual agreement signed between schools and local law enforcement over how to handle a crisis, a byproduct of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999.
“That’s when I dove into something that I recommend every one of you dive into, particularly the superintendents and principals, and that’s your memorandum of agreement that you sign every year. Learn it, it is going to protect you, it is going to help you.”
“I learned I had to conduct myself and say precisely what I could say. If I say something that interferes with or inhibits a prosecutor’s investigation, I could be arrested for a criminal act … From saying it was ‘unforeseen circumstances’ [that caused the cancellation] that turned to ‘serious inappropriate behavior,’ and we made sure, even during that time period, to stay away from the word ‘hazing.’”
“It was a very tense situation where we needed to make sure we were working within the confines of that agreement and make sure we were working with the prosecutors officeas to what we could say.”
The first priority
Labbe repeatedly said that throughout the ordeal. he had to keep his focus on his primary responsibility as a superintendent and an educator: his students.
“Those were the people I thought of. It was predominantly the victims; I didn’t even know who they were until months afterwards. I didn’t even know what they looked like until a year after.”
“I thought about the parents of those kids, who listened to their children come home and tell them what happened. Put yourself in the shoes of the parents who had to listen to their 14-year-old sons tell them what happened.”
The season came next
Nearly as soon as he decided to forfeit the game, Labbe said he realized there was little doubt that the season was in jeopardy as well.
“We had a serious investigation going on. Because of the memorandum of agreement, we wouldn’t talk to any kids, we couldn’t talk to our coaches. We have a potential crime scene in our locker-room.
“We had a lot going on with a very short window of time as to what we could do … If we were going to cancel the first game, what makes you decide you can play the next game?”
“I know how important football is, I lived it, but I was not going to choose a football game over the kids, and I certainly know the majority of people would feel the same way.”
“We could not possibly put kids back in that environment.”
Parent and community reaction
Labbe said the reactions were swift and often hostile.
“That Monday we had a meeting with parents and gave them an opportunity to vent, and they vented. I had to be picked up off the floor. It was hard, it was hard, and I’ll never forget one of the parents who said to me, ‘Why are you so mad?’
[related]“And I didn’t say it, but every part of my body wanted to say, ‘Why aren’t you so mad?’ … Four innocent children had that innocence stripped away from them.
“Those kids lost something they will never get back. The perpetrators lost something they will never get back. The parents lost something they will never get back. We have provided just as much therapy to the perpetrators as we have to the victims.”
“During this meeting, one of the parents actually said they heard it was just kids getting tapped on the butt, it was just freshman getting pushed in the mud … That was a clear indication to me that our parents don’t understand hazing, that our parents need educating … This was one of the pieces we learned to how this happened.”
Action versus words
Labbe said it was critical for the district to act decisively and quickly.
“These kids pay more attention to what you do rather than what you say. You can tell them a thousand times, but when you react, that’s when they’ll learn … We realized that first and foremost, the best way that we are going to prevent this from ever happening again in Sayreville was to act strongly, to act swiftly and to act appropriately … We wanted all of our staff, all of our parents, all of our community to know that we will not tolerate this kind of behavior.”
Board support was critical
The Board of Education meeting came next, and an overflow crowd did not hold back.
“We had an incredible board, one that supported what we were doing 110 percent, in spite of the fact that we had four times more people to that meeting than we ever get. And they were hostile, and they were nasty. And that board stood strong. That board did not need to stand behind me, but that board knew collectively that it happened here and were responsible for it happening here.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of people in Sayreville, and I couldn’t be more indebted to a group of people.”
“Of course, there were other casualties. When you cancel a football season, you are harming your band, you are harming your cheerleaders. I’ll never forget meeting with cheerleading parents and me pleading with them to cheer for the soccer team, cheer for field hockey team. They said that’s not America. You don’t cheer for soccer team. I said tell them that in Europe.”
Just the beginning
Those first weeks were only the start of a process that only intensified once the football players were charged with assault and other crimes. That’s when the lawyers became a ubiquitous presence in meetings, and the media a ubiquitous presence outside his doors.
“We had attorneys galore, my office was a campground for attorneys. Add investigators from the prosecutor’s office … You need to be able to manage it.
“And at the height of all this, the media was crashing down. I was receiving 30-40 media requests a week, not to mention thousands and thousands of letters … We’re all trained to respond, but it became really hard.
“It came to be a tipping point where I needed help … As we looked at our insurance, we came across a clause that we could use a crisis-management firm … They represented an oil company in the gulf, they represented the movie theater in Colorado. They essentially take the media away, so we could do our jobs.”
The healing process
The healing started with a vigil held by the community, where Labbe estimated a third of the town was in attendance. The high school held assemblies on bullying, and the churches and other houses of worship held events around uniting Sayreville.
“Are we on our way to healing? Can I tell you were are completely healed? No, you don’t heal completely around something liker this. It takes years, but we are on our way and we are moving forward.”
“I have gotten attention for what I did, but I can tell to the people in this room that you would have done the same thing … The actions we took, we were not heroic … What was heroic was that 14 year-old-child who approached their Mom and Dad and told them what happened. That was the hero.”