ACLU ‘denounces’ Sayreville over gun violence walkout suspensions
TRENTON — Many schools across New Jersey are participating in a nationwide school walkout to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, but at least one district has threatened to suspend students who participate.
The #Enough National School Walkout to End Gun Violence starts at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Students will walk out of class and stand in silence for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the victims fatally gunned down by Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
In many cases, students who wanted their school to participate signed up at a website and worked with administrators on how their school's event would be held.
The Sayreville district, however, is not supporting the walkout and has threatened to punish students who participate with a two-day suspension. In response, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the district's "heavy-handed approach," pointing out that the district's code of conduct only calls for Saturday detention for walking out of school without authorization.
At the school board meeting of Feb. 20, Board President Kevin Ciak said the board could not condone the district's participation for a number of reasons. Ciak cited a 1965 Supreme Court decision he said prohibited protests from causing a significant disruption to the educational process. The ruling also allowed schools to discipline disruptive students in order to maintain order and safety, according to Ciak.
"Certainly, 400 students walking out of any one of our schools will certainly create a disruption and be a situation where the school district has the ability to discipline students for disrupting the educational process," Ciak said during the meeting.
He said the school would open a "Pandora's Box" by allowing students to demonstrate for any cause.
"If we decide that we open this door we open this door to allow to basically walk out and protest anything," Ciak said.
Ciak also said there is concern the attention the event will bring puts students at risk in a "politically charged" atmosphere.
"I still encourage students if they feel strongly about this issue, pro or con, they still have the right and the ability to shape national debate. It just doesn't nee to be a walkout during the school day," he said, suggesting a Saturday rally at the township's Kennedy Park.
"Their approach is the most punitive we are aware of in the state," said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director for ACLU-NJ, adding that they are "very concerned" about this situation.
Elsewhere in the state, Robbinsville students met with Superintendent Kaite Foster and worked out "logistical challenges" to allow interested students at the high school and middle school to participate.
After the walkout, Foster said high school students will participate in "meaningful service-related activities."
Foster said that students will not be coerced into participating nor will they be disciplined for walking out.
Students at Princeton High School and John Witherspoon Middle School will also be allowed to walk out.
The walkout will be followed by an hour of "service, advocacy, and reflection, including voter registration, mental health awareness, class discussions and other student-generated activities."
Middle school students will take a 17-minute walk culminating in the formation of a heart in a field next to the school.
Jackson public schools are taking a less formal approach to the walkout, according to district spokeswoman Allison Erwin. "We want to support them but we're taking our cues from them about what and how they want to demonstrate."
The district is providing a safe area for students to assemble and law enforcement will be present.
"We're also making sure that all students, including those who prefer not to participate, are all respectful of each other's viewpoints," she said.
Piscataway police said they will increase their presence following rumors of threats of violence during the walkout.