By Sascha Brodsky
SAYREVILLE N.J. (Reuters) - New Jersey school officials voted on Tuesday to suspend five high school coaches in a locker-room hazing scandal that has led to criminal sex abuse charges against teen football players.
Head coach George Najjar and four coaching assistants at Sayreville War Memorial High School were officially suspended by the Sayreville Board of Education during a raucous meeting in which dozens of parents, students and alumni voiced their strong support for the coaching staff.
“We love Coach Najjar!” a woman shouted during the meeting, her comment drawing applause from the audience.
Brandon Hoyte, who graduated from Sayreville and went on to become captain the football team at the University of Notre Dame, was among those who praised Najjar.
“The only reason that I have had any success in life is because of Coach Najjar,” Hoyte told the board. “Please take this man's character into consideration.”
The 1,700-student school has a highly regarded football team with Najjar, who was elected to the New Jersey Football Coaches Hall of Fame in June, leading the team to three state titles.
But after the hazing came to light earlier this month, seven football players were suspended and charged with sexually abusing four freshmen members of the team.
School Board President Kevin Ciak told the meeting that the suspension of the coaches - with pay - was not intended as punishment but as a means of finding out the truth. He declined to reveal any further information, including how long the suspensions would last.
The suspensions “are consistent with the ongoing and not yet completed investigation," Ciak said.
Details of the suspensions remained unclear after the meeting. The school board met in closed session and a document handed out during the public session referred to the salaries of the suspended coaches being cut in half.
School district superintendent Richard Labbe canceled the remainder of this year's high school football season and said he was considering suspending the program in future years as well.
Three Sayreville players are charged with aggravated sexual assault, and four are charged with aggravated assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact and other crimes. They are aged 15 to 17.
Prosecutors say the victims were held against their will while other team members touched them.
NJ Advance Media, citing interviews with victims, has reported the freshman players were held down while other players inserted fingers into their rectums and then their mouths.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh)