Wall football hazing: Lawyers for accused students slam prosecutor over publicity

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WALL - Attorneys for the Wall Township High School students recently charged in the alleged abuse scandal that has rocked the football team say their clients are being unfairly portrayed and blame the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office for releasing information on the investigation that involves accused juveniles.

“The acting prosecutor's recent press releases have put juveniles in the spotlight of public opinion,” said Tara Breslow-Testa, who is representing one of the charged students. “Prosecutors typically do not confirm the existence of juvenile investigations as minors are supposed to be afforded the benefits of confidentiality. This action is inconsistent with juvenile justice reform and condemns these juveniles before they have their day in court.”

Defense attorney Michael Pappa, who represents a different accused student, offered a similar view: “I am reluctant to comment because the juvenile justice system calls for confidentiality, yet the Prosecutor’s Office has made a public statement of the alleged offenses to include attempted criminal sexual contact.”

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A week ago, acting county Prosecutor Lori Linskey revealed that several students had been charged in the case. She did not provide an exact number nor their identities because of their status as minors.

The juvenile complaints alleging hazing, attempted criminal sexual contact, criminal sexual contact, false imprisonment and harassment were filed “against a number of” Wall Township High School students, Linsky said in a news release issued Jan. 10.

Moreover, a separate investigation resulted in charges of aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault against one juvenile in connection with alleged conduct that occurred outside of school, the prosecutor said in a statement.

“It is imperative that victims of hazing, harassment, intimidation and bullying know that such conduct is not a ‘rite of passage’ and should not be endured without consequence in order to gain acceptance in social, club, sport or academic settings,” Linskey said at the time.

The Wall Township High School football field is shown Thursday, November 11, 2021.
The Wall Township High School football field is shown Thursday, November 11, 2021.

That public announcement and the seriousness of the charges is what has the defense attorneys up in arms.

“The truth is that nothing of a sexual nature took place in the locker room,” Pappa added. “These were teenagers who were friends and teammates engaged in a football locker room activity that the coaching staff had knowledge of.”

Christopher Swendeman, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, took issue with the notion that what the office did was out of bounds.

“Juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public, and state law protects the confidentiality of juvenile records and the identities of those charged with juvenile complaints; however, it is left to the discretion of individual law enforcement agencies to disclose general information about noteworthy juvenile investigations as they see fit," he said. "Any suggestion that doing so is unique, unprecedented, or even non-routine is patently false.”

The football team investigation relates to several alleged incidents that occurred in September and October and allegedly involved at least seven students who were eventually suspended in November.

The probe resulted in the cancellation of a 2021 playoff game and the team’s annual Thanksgiving Day game against Manasquan. By the end of December three football coaches were placed on leave, including head coach Anthony Grandinetti, along with athletic director Thomas Ridoux.

Rumors and anonymous reports speculated that the incident involved foreign objects and sexual abuse, with video of some of the actions reportedly circulated in the community and eventually reaching the Prosecutor’s Office.

But those representing the students contend Linskey went too far and put their clients in an unfair and damaging situation since some have returned to class and others soon will.

“It was unfortunate that there was press and that these kids have to deal with the publicity of it,” said Christopher Adams, an attorney representing one of the charged juveniles. “Their identities are known in the community, and they have to deal with it. The facts have been sensationalized and made to seem that this was sexual when it was not. This was not sexual, which has been presented.

“The charge of criminal sexual contact could be slapping someone on the butt through a pair of jeans,” he added. “It was not salacious or sexual, it was sophomoric and the subject of school discipline but not the subject of criminal activity.”

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Wall School Board Secretary Brian Smyth and Board Attorney Athina Cornell at the Jan. 4, 2002 board meeting.
Wall School Board Secretary Brian Smyth and Board Attorney Athina Cornell at the Jan. 4, 2002 board meeting.

It also has been revealed that the district and attorneys for some of the suspended students discussed having the students transfer to another district, with tuition provided by the Wall school district, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. But none of the students accepted the offer.

Such transfers are common for students who are facing discipline, health or other personal problems as part of a solution to ease them back into academic life, officials said.

Smith added that comparisons to the 2014 hazing case in Sayreville in which that football team’s season was canceled, charges were brought and coaches were suspended for leaving the locker room unattended are unfair.

The alleged crimes in Sayreville included kicking, beating and groping younger players, as well as at least one alleged act of sexual penetration. In all, nine Sayreville players were charged, but none was sentenced to jail or juvenile detention. They were ordered to terms of probation or community service. No supervising adults faced legal penalties.

“This is not even in the realm of what happened in Sayreville. This was a bunch of teenage boys wrestling and roughhousing in a locker room fully clothed in front of the coaches' office and coaches,” Adams said. “If it was anything more than that, reasonable adults would have stopped it, but the coaches saw it for what it was, roughhousing. We’ve seen all the videos and it is nothing, people are describing it as attempted sodomy, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”

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Meanwhile, the future of the football team and the criminal case remain unknown. District officials recently quashed rumors that there would be no football season in the fall, but have yet to name a head coach for the upcoming season.

Veteran Shore athletic director and coach Nicholas Pizzulli was appointed as Wall athletic director last month. He held a similar post in Sayreville that helped that district get beyond its scandal in 2014.

The Wall football probe also has become a regular subject at Board of Education meetings, where parents and residents are demanding answers and board members say they can say very little given that the case involves personnel matters and the confidentiality of juveniles.

“Unfortunately, the inability to speak to or to defend one’s self creates an unavoidable information vacuum that is quickly filled with innuendo, half-truths, rumor, fake news and malicious lies,” Superintendent Tracy Handerhan said at Tuesday night’s board meeting. “Serving on a school board is not for the faint of heart. Serving on the Wall Township Board of Education takes fortitude, grit and a very thick skin.”

Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and several local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of three books, including "Killing Journalism" on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at jstrupp@gannettnj.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Wall football hazing: Students' lawyers slam prosecutor over publicity

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