(Photo: NSU (Newark Students Union))
On Tuesday, April 9, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 students from at least a dozen public high schools in Newark, New Jersey, walked out of class to protest years of budget cuts, school closings and teacher layoffs by Governor Chris Christie. They marched to Rutgers Law School, where they demonstrated for hours in front of a State Assembly budget hearing on education.
The walkout was organized by the Newark Students Union (NSU) in response to a $56 million budget cut proposed by state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.
Rather than embrace student civic engagement, some schools reportedly responded with threats, intimidation and punishment to keep students from participating in constitutionally protected speech.
Threatening Students With Bats
Andrew, a junior and student athlete at East Side High School who declined to give his last name, said he saw a security guard carrying a bat at the front exit for hours. Andrew was reluctant to offer even his first name because his coach warned players that if they participated in the walkout they could be benched.
"After the walkout, I saw at least one security guard holding a softball bat. He was walking around with it and standing at the front door," he said. There were rumors that security guards were swinging bats at students, but Truthout was unable to verify this.
Andrew said he overheard a conversation between the security guard and a teacher. The teacher asked the guard why he was holding a bat, and the guard responded, "It won't kill anybody but it will put a good thump on them," according to Andrew.
He said he has no doubt that the lockdown was put in place to prevent students from walking out, especially since there was a lockdown drill last week.
Jelani Woods, 14, a freshman at University High School who attended the protest, told Truthout that she thought the story of East Side High School students being threatened with bats was just a rumor. "At first I didn't believe it, but I went up to students who got out, and, yeah, it happened," Woods said. Six East Side High School students who managed to sneak out the "far exit" confirmed to Woods, she said, that school officials carried bats for intimidation purposes to prevent students from leaving.
A 16-year-old junior at East Side High School who was prevented from leaving contacted Truthout as well. He declined to give his name for fear he would get in trouble with the principal, Dr. Mario Santos, for speaking with a reporter. This followed reports that the principal scolded students who tried to leave.
"The principal yelled at us," said the student. "He said that it's pointless to protest for your education when you're leaving school."
The student said he and 10 others met in the school lobby around noon to walk out. "There was a lockdown at the time, so students were deterred and went back to class," he said. He heard yelling and saw a security guard holding a bat outside, but assumed the guard had just confiscated it from a student.
"East Side High School is getting a million dollars, which is why the principal is probably not on our side," the student added. According to the FY '14 budget, an extra 1,344,140 is allocated for East Side High School, making it one of a handful of schools receiving a budget increase.
Another East Side High School Student, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, confirmed that bats were used and doors were locked at East Side High School. He said the principal warned students that anyone absent the day of the walkout would have to stay at school until 5 PM the next day.
A student from Weequahic High School, who contacted Truthout by e-mail during the school day, told a similar story to that of the East Side High School students. "We can't leave. They lock[ed] the doors and put us on lockdown," he wrote.
School officials at both East Side High School and Weequahic refused to answer questions related to the walkout, making it impossible to clarify the reason for the lockdown. An administrator at East Side High School denied there was a walkout taking place. Another East Side High School administrator confirmed the existence of the walkout, but said, "Now is a bad time," and hung up. Neither identified themselves. When one official at Weequahic High School realized she was speaking with a journalist, she replied, "I can't talk to you" and immediately ended the call.
Jaysen Bazile, a senior at Science High School and chief representative of the NSU, told Truthout that he received a personal phone call from Superintendent Cami Anderson a day before the walkout. "She gave her talking points and asked if we could cancel the walkout and wait until after school to protest." The superintendent's office did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Constitutional Rights Don't Stop at the School Gate
Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, told Truthout that schools cannot prevent students from engaging in constitutionally protected activity.
"Students do not lose their constitutional rights when they walk through the school gate. That includes the right to engage in civil disobedience," Ofer said. "Schools also have the right to punish [students] for violation of school discipline policies," he added. Still, Ofer was clear that this does not give schools the right to threaten or prevent students from engaging in political activity.
When asked whether students' constitutional rights still apply during a lockdown, which requires that school doors be locked and hallways cleared, Ofer said it depends on the reason for the lockdown.
"If schools purposely lock the doors for the sole reason of preventing students from engaging in first amendment protected speech that raises serious concerns," he said.
An Atmosphere of Intimidation and Retaliation
That almost every student who contacted Truthout declined to give their name for fear of reprisal from school officials points to a lack of freedom of expression in Newark public schools, an issue teachers are all too familiar with.
Newark teachers are terrified to speak on the record about the attacks on public education for fear of losing their jobs. One teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused higher-ups of closely monitoring teachers who show any sign of pushback. Once at an advisory board meeting, a teacher in attendance went outside to retrieve something from a car and found a stranger taking pictures of teachers' license plates, the teacher told Truthout.
Donald Jackson, a 20-year-old former Newark student who participated in a student walkout in 2010, blamed the atmosphere of fear on "the fascist way this public school system is being run," adding, "It don't help that our unions are sorry as hell." Today, Jackson is a community organizer with United Parents Network and continues to support Newark students in their struggle to save their schools. Jackson advocates for local, democratic control of public schools because, "the state has been in charge for 18 years, and schools have gotten worse."
Putting Big Business Before Students
Though some students were prevented from walking out, many more made it to the hearing to voice their outrage over budget cuts, which they see as a deliberate attack on their right to a quality education.
Students argued that the formula set up by the School Funding Reform Act SFRA) of 2008 - a state law that mandates full equitable funding of all school districts - entitles Newark public schools to $51 million that could help close Newark's $56 million budget gap, but the state has failed to follow the law.
"For the last three years Governor Christie has waged a concerted attack on Newark students," said Bazile, in an NSU press release. "He keeps saying that he's given New Jersey schools unprecedented levels of support, but what he doesn't say is that his hand was forced by the Supreme Court after they found his first year cuts violated our constitutional rights to a thorough and efficient education."
In 2010, Gov. Christie cut nearly $1 billion in school funding, a move that was later found to be unconstitutional by the state supreme court. The majority ruled that the administration deliberately underfunded the SFRA formula. Despite the ruling, Christie has continued to underfund education. Meanwhile, he has handed out $2.1 billion in tax breaks to big businesses, including Panasonic, Citigroup and Prudential Insurance, since he entered office in 2010.
"Why does Prudential Insurance get $210 million for an office in downtown Newark but West Side High School can't get $3 million for textbooks, teachers and extracurriculars?" asked Thais Marques in the NSU press release. "The problem isn't resources; it's that politicians aren't putting students first."
Officials from the Governor's office did not return calls for comment.
More Than Just "Urban Kids"
Khadija Bhatti, a freshman at University High School who addressed the budget hearing, told Truthout that race is a major factor in what she called a "coordinated attack" on public education around the country.
Of the 37,443 students enrolled in Newark Public Schools, the overwhelming majority are African American (22,048) and Hispanic (14,036).
And Newark is just one of countless US cities where students of color bear the brunt of the education reform agenda that seeks to eliminate state budget deficits by cuts to education, including school closings, teacher layoffs and privatization. In fact, the largest cost increase in next year's budget is charter school tuition, which will rise from $148 million to $181 million in 2014 "driven by a projected increase of approximately 2200 students in charter schools," according to the current budget proposal. That comes out to $33 million or more than half of the $56 million budget gap students are protesting.
"A lot of us feel neglected," said Bhatti. "They describe us as deprived urban kids who don't understand what education is, who would kill to leave school, who would rather be out on streets selling drugs."
This sense of indifference among political leaders is only reinforced by "the fact that Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Cory Booker haven't addressed [the walkout]," said Bhatti. She went on to call Booker "a disgrace to Newark" and "a publicity whore," who routinely ignores students on social media.
Still, Bhatti is not discouraged. "The fight doesn't stop here," she promised. "There will be more sit-ins and walkouts." And she isn't alone. The overwhelming consensus among students is that this is only the beginning of a long and difficult fight that they're more than willing to wage.
"We're fighting for our teachers, our principals, our community and Newark as a whole," said Bhatti. Whether New Jersey leaders like it or not, Newark public school students are done being ignored.
According to the ACLU of New Jersey's Udi Ofer, students who feel threatened or intimidated, or have had their rights violate, should call the ACLU at 973-642-2084.