Seven high school students face sex crime charges amid a hazing investigation that canceled a New Jersey prep football team's season, law enforcement and school officials said.
Six of the seven students, ranging in age from 15 to 17, were arrested Friday night in the assaults at regional football power Sayreville War Memorial High School, police and prosecutors said. The seventh was being sought.
Authorities did not specify the connection of the suspects or alleged victims to the football program, but previously said they were investigating hazing allegations connected to the team. In a statement on the arrests, Superintendent Richard Labbe said the district will continue to cooperate with prosecutors' "ongoing investigation of the Sayreville War Memorial High School football program."
The arrests came four days after Labbe announced he was canceling the rest of the football team's season after the prosecutor's office substantiated allegations of hazing.
The suspects attacked four students on separate occasions between Sept. 19 and Sept. 29, authorities said. Their investigation found that the suspects held other teens against their will and touched them in a sexual manner. One of the victims was kicked during an attack, authorities said.
Three of the students were charged with aggravated sexual assault, criminal restraint, hazing and other crimes for an act of sexual penetration upon one of the alleged victims, Middlesex County prosecutor Andrew C. Carey said. The four other students were charged with aggravated criminal sexual contact and other crimes.
Those in custody were awaiting a Family Court decision on whether they would be held at a juvenile detention facility or be released to their families. Their names weren't released because of their ages.
Prosecutors did not immediately return a call and email Saturday morning seeking comment on the status of the seventh suspect and whether the others have yet appeared before a judge.
On Friday evening, as what would have been game time on the planned homecoming night neared, the lights at the school's football stadium stayed off and the field remained empty.
Parents in the township have complained that the whole team is being punished. The team, the Bombers, has won three sectional titles over four years.
Labbe has stood by his decision and said the time has come for students and others to step forward when bullying occurs. He said Friday the district has launched a harassment, intimidation and bullying investigation of all its athletic teams.
"We will come together as a school district and greater community to harness the strength required to support the young men who may have been victimized and then to begin the healing process for our beloved community," he said.
Sayreville sits next to the Raritan River and just inland from the Raritan Bay, site of devastating flooding from Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Football was a constant through the storm's aftermath, and news of the season's cancellation hit students hard.
Residents describe the Sayreville as a hardworking, diverse place geared toward football. They say the borough of about 43,000 people is a great place to raise kids.
"Everything revolves around getting the kids ready to play Bomber football," Cary Melendez, who has been living in Sayreville a few years, said outside her house.
At John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, across the street from the school, Matt Norcross said football is a large part of the town's identity.
"It's hard to get here on Friday nights" because the games generate so much traffic, the South Amboy man said as his 12-year-old stepson participated in football practice on a nearby field.
An anti-bullying rally has been scheduled for Sunday night in Kennedy Park. Holly Emory, whose son plays on the football team, said parents have asked those attending not to wear Bombers gear so they don't "pour salt in the wound."