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N.J. Youth-Football Players Sue to Have Suspensions Lifted (UPDATED)

UPDATED

Nine high school football players from Wayne Hills (N.J.) High School are suing their district over suspensions stemming from their alleged involvement in an off-campus fight.

The players filed a civil suit on Tuesday alleging that the Wayne school district infringed on their constitutional rights by suspending them from sports for off-campus activities. The suit suggests that the suspensions could have detrimental effects on the players' chances of obtaining college scholarships.

This all started back on Oct. 29, when nine Wayne Hills players allegedly assaulted two players from one of their district rivals—Wayne Valley High School—after an off-campus party. One player was left unconscious and lying in a roadway, while the other was kicked by his assailants, according to The Record, which spoke to local police.

The police informed the district on Nov. 9 that the nine Wayne Hills students were each being charged with two counts of aggravated assault, according to a statement from interim Superintendent Michael Roth. The school allowed the players to play with the football team that weekend while they gathered further information.

The board of education met twice the next week, on Monday and Wednesday, to further assess the charges and the proper course of action. After determining that case law permits the superintendent to suspend players for off-campus actions that had "substantial and material impact on the operation of the school," Roth decided on Nov. 16 to suspend the students from further participation in extracurricular activities. (Neither of the Wayne Valley players were punished or charged with any crimes.)

What's strange about the superintendent's Nov. 16 decision: The principals of both Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley initially said that the incident wasn't having any noticeable impact on their schools, according to a statement from the district website.

A day later, after a four-hour closed-door meeting, the school board temporarily held the superintendent's decision, allowing the students to participate in a playoff game on Nov. 18. Wayne Hills won that game and advanced to the state championship game, which will be held this Saturday, Dec. 3.

The players were tentatively scheduled to have more hearings in front of the district's board of education on Nov. 29. Then, this past Wednesday, the local prosecutor's office informed school officials that any extra evidence they gathered in the hearing could potentially interfere with the police investigation.

That caused the school board to drop all further hearings, and, in turn, reinstate the suspensions this past Friday. The two principals, who initially said the incident wasn't having an impact on their schools, told the board that "the issue is disrupting the daily operations in the buildings," which was "a significant basis" for why the suspensions were upheld.

In response, the Wayne Hills players filed a civil suit in state Superior Court against the district. One of the players' lawyers has also formally asked the state commissioner of education, Christopher Cerf, to temporarily lift the suspensions until the case can play out in a court of law.

"[The school board has] done nothing but divide this community with their flip-flop decisions," said Darren Del Sardo, a lawyer for one of the players, to the Associated Press. "If you're not going to offer someone due process, you don't take action and you let it play out in the juvenile-justice system."

Eight of the nine players charged are minors, and they say in the suit that their absence on the field this weekend will make them easily identifiable. In the suit, they also challenge the assertion that their off-campus fight has significantly affected the day-to-day operations of their school.

UPDATE, 2:00 p.m.: A bit earlier today, a judge declined to lift the students' suspensions, deferring the decision to Cerf, the state education commissioner, according to The Record.

The judge told the players' attorneys that the commissioner's Bureau of Controversies and Disputes should review the suspensions on Thursday—two days before the state championship. If the commissioner's office doesn't address the case this week, the judge said that he would rule himself.

He said that "primary jurisdiction" rested with the commissioner, but he does have authority to decide the case on his own.

Assuming the commissioner's office does take up the case tomorrow, we'll have another update for you then.

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