For thousands of New Jersey high school students who staged mass walkouts from their classrooms today to protest proposed cuts by Gov. Chris Christie, one question remains: Will their efforts make a difference?
"Sadly, no," said Bhriana Smith, 16, a student at Newark’s Science Park High School. "I wish it did, but it won’t."
"Effect? Not much because of the disorganization, but hopefully we got our message out," her classmate, Kharis Xavier, said.
United by a Facebook page that called for students to "rise up and do something," there was no denying that the scores who rallied to support their teachers found the attention they sought — even if some were disciplined for their actions.
"This is not our mistake and we will not suffer for it," senior Robert Wilson told a crowd of approximately 200 students at West Orange High School. "Enough cuts! Enough is enough!"
Ironically, the protests provided a rare meeting of the minds between the New Jersey Education Association and Christie. Both urged students to return to class, although Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, fired a parting shot at the NJEA.
"It is also our firm hope that the students were motivated by youthful rebellion or spring fever – and not by encouragement from any one-sided view of the current budget crisis in New Jersey," Drewniak said.
The protests were organized on a Facebook page called "Protest NJ Education Cuts — State Wide School Walk Out" set up a month ago by Michelle Ryan Lauto, a 2009 graduate of Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan. The page had close to 18,000 fans today.
Newark was the site of the largest demonstration, with more than 2,000 students from at least seven high schools marching from Military Park to City Hall holding signs and chanting "Save our schools!"
The walkouts were supposed to begin at 1 p.m., but many began earlier with students marching to school football fields and parking lots armed with signs, some of which read: "Protect Education."
Throughout the day, state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler urged schools to enforce attendance policies.
At West Orange High School, students chanted and sang in support of their teacher’s jobs and extracurricular programs that are at risk with the district’s budget voted down last week.
"My cousins coming into this school won’t have athletics," freshman Azriel Gordon said. "It’s not fair that we have to suffer."
School administrators allowed for protests in many locales. At Montclair High School, Montclair Mayor Jerry Fried offered his support, but also told students to get back to class.
"It’s a tricky situation because I support their expression, but they need to go in school," Fried said. "Ideally, they would have had the protest before the school day or after and not miss class. But there is a lot of emotion about it."
Carolina Noguera, a junior at Montclair, said she was willing to serve detention for the cause.
"I want to be a teacher when I grow up, but the way things are going it looks impossible," she said. "There are barely even any books here anymore."
School funding has been a white-hot issue since Christie last month called for an $820 million cut in state aid for public schools next year.
In school elections last week, voters rejected 59 percent of school budgets proposed statewide. Many school districts are now planning teacher and school employee layoffs to account for the lost aid.
Christie maintains layoffs can be avoided if teachers agree to a one-year salary freeze and submit 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health insurance premiums. The NJEA, however, says the governor is unfairly trying to balance the state’s budget at the expense of schools.
With Ocean Township’s proposed school budget defeated by six votes, 39 jobs will have to be eliminated next year, Superintendent Thomas Pagano said. Today, about 100 students held a sit-in in one hallways at Ocean Township High School. A smaller group of about 35 sat on the school’s front lawn for 20 minutes before returning to classes.
At Parsippany High School, about 80 students attempted to march from the school to the town’s municipal building off Route 46. Once they got halfway there, they decided to take a bus back to school because the distance was a little more than they anticipated.
"They really just wanted to be heard and to express their opinions," Prinicipal Natalie Betz said.
Protests were generally smaller in South Jersey. About 50 students sat on the steps outside the gym at Gateway Regional High School in Deptford. A few carried signs scribbled on notebook paper that said "Save our teachers." Others wore handmade white shirts with black marker scrawled on them. Principal Steve Hindman was outside with them, holding a legal pad with the students’ names on it.
"They have to be disciplined for this," Hindman said.
At Old Bridge High School, about 200 students marched around the building for about 30 minutes chanting "no more budget cuts" before returning to class, Principal James Hickey said.
In Newark, students helped clean up the litter left at City Hall after the rally.
"We just thought we might as well clean up the mess we made," said Smith, the Science Park High student. "Unlike our governor."