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NJ Teens Protest Gun Violence: Teachable Moment or Disciplinary Problem?

New Jersey high school students plan to show solidarity with national ‘March for Our Lives,” leaving parents and educators uncertain about best response

cherry hill walkout
Credit: Angela Spiegle
Hundreds of Cherry Hill East students walked out of classes on Tuesday to protest what they say is their school’s failure to talk meaningfully about gun violence.

Teenagers across the country are organizing student protests to express their fear and anger about school security and national gun laws, while New Jersey’s parents, teachers and school administrators are unsure how best to respond. Many want to channel students’ passion in some way to create teachable moments and allow them to exercise their First Amendment rights. Other districts are concerned about permitting students to miss school, regardless of the reason.

Much of the energy behind the protests is a direct result of outspoken survivors of the Parkland, FL, attack. A national “March for Our Lives” demonstration has been rescheduled for March 24 (it was originally set for March 14). Garden State high school students are preparing a New Jersey version to take place in Newark on March 24.

Administrators and parents have had various reactions to the protests. The state Department of Education Tuesday issued a memo warning of potential dangers to student security, due to the protests. Other administrators and activists are looking for ways to offer civic education, including having eligible students register to vote. The state NJEA has issued a statement saying they do not advocate student walkouts for any reason. And parents have panicked that punishments issued by schools could negatively impact an acceptance to college.

According to a data analysis by Vox.com, the Parkland teenagers and their supporters around the country have been able to direct attention to gun violence in schools for a much longer time than happened after the San Bernardino and Sandy Hook shootings. In New Jersey this has resulted in the announcement of a coalition of states for gun safety, a package of seven gun-control bills moving through the Legislature, and calls for federal legislation to expand background checks. The issue is once again being discussed in Congress.

Hundreds of Cherry Hill East (CHE) high school students walked out of classes on Tuesday to protest what they say is their school’s failure to talk meaningfully about gun violence. They were reacting to the school administration’s response when they say a popular history teacher at CHE, Timothy Locke, tried to start a conversation with students about school security. The teacher was reportedly suspended.

Spurred by outrage, students planned a sit-in in Locke’s defense on Monday, followed by a walkout on Tuesday. But they were told by CHE principal Dennis Perry that their participation would result in suspension and inability to attend the senior trip and prom.

“Threatening to take our senior trip and prom away was not really a fear to me at all,” Angela Spiegle, a senior at CHE, said. “It’s just a threat. Both my parents and many other parents... said if I or their child was suspended they would support us.”

For Spiegle, punishment was never a motivator for her and her classmates. She said this issue was just too important not to make her voice heard.

Nevertheless, the threat of suspension was enough to make some students and parents call New Jersey colleges and universities in a panic about application status and how a punishment for participating would be viewed by the college.

NJ colleges stand by protests

Rowan, Stockton, Rutgers, Montclair, TCNJ, Drew, and Monmouth have all declared their support for the students’ participation in peaceful protests and assured applicants that walking out would not negatively impact their admission decisions. In some cases, it could even help their chances.

“We very much believe in students expressing themselves and taking a stand. That's what an education is all about,” Karen Pennington, vice president of student development and campus life at Montclair State University, said. “This is the first generation that has to think about school shootings to this extent. They recognize that something has to be done and I think that's terrific.”

Pennington and officials from the other schools said that there would be no reason for such a minor infraction to even show up on a student’s transcript or application — unless, Pennington said, they wrote a really fantastic essay about it.

“We haven’t dealt with something like this before” Joe Cardona, vice president for university relations at Rowan University, said. “You don’t really see high school students as leaders in movements, but university is about free speech and whatever the topic may be, we do not hold anything like that against the student.”

Are suspensions legal?

With the public support of many universities nationwide, thousands plan to attend the student-organized “March for Our Lives,” according to the Facebook page for the event. For many, the threat of school suspension is not only trivial but could be unconstitutional.

According to the New Jersey compulsory education law, all children between six and 16 are required to attend school, which gives principals and administrators the full legal right to discipline students for missing class for any unexcused reason. According to the New Jersey branch of the ACLU, however, principals are not permitted to levy a harsher punishment for participating in a political protest than for simply skipping school. That would violate a student’s constitutional right to free speech and due process.

“If the punishment for missing a class is just a detention, then that’s the punishment,” ACLU-NJ legal director Ed Barocas, said. “Principals can’t make up a punishment ad hoc because they don’t like the activity of the day.”

Barocas said it all comes down to the student handbook. Whatever the specific school’s written discipline guidelines are for infractions must hold true even in unexpected circumstances like organized protest.

In Cherry Hill East’s case, students walked out around midday, which could be considered cutting class and falling under policy 5200 which reads “unexcused absences from school or from classes within the school day may subject a student to consequences that may include the denial of a student’s participation in co-curricular activities and/or athletic competition,” but makes no mention or allowance for suspension — at least for the first instance. Repeated absences do count toward truancy and can result in harsher punishment.

“The student handbook is a set of rules that the student is bound to and must abide by. The school can discipline but has to be consistent,” Barocas said. “Our hope is that instead of discipline, principals will celebrate civic engagement and use it as a teachable moment.”

A credible fear for safety

With more rallies and marches planned for April 20 (the anniversary of the Columbine massacre) and March 24, however, fear of suspension or academic punishment comes second to the fear of yet another attack. Indeed, Nutley schools closed last week after a threat was circulated online.

In preparation for the national walkout, the state Department of Education circulated a memo warning school officials of the security risks inherent in such a protest.

“Given the predetermined and widely publicized date and time-specific call for this walkout, it should be remembered that anyone intent on a possible attack against such a school will be aware of the time and date of the walkout,” the memo reads, echoing a fear of many parents and students as school threats continue to spike in the New York/New Jersey area.

The memo, written by Robert Bumpus, the assistant commissioner for field services in the New Jersey DOE, also warns school administrators to monitor social media and take into account the memorandum of agreement with local law enforcement which “requires districts to report to law enforcement any incident that involves threatened or planned violence.”

The New Jersey Education Association has likewise made it clear in a statement to NJ Spotlight that they do not advocate for student walkouts during school hours.

Protest as a teachable moment

In the search for a safer alternative to walkouts, some schools across the state are looking to engage students in conversation about gun violence and the democratic process.

Patricia Wright, executive director at the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said the challenge school administrators are facing is how to best honor the students’ right to voice their opinion while also ensuring their safety. To this end, Wright said many NJPSA members statewide in preparation of the “March for Our Lives” are working to organize activities on school campuses centered around civic education.

“I’ve been thinking long and hard about how do we use this as a teachable moment around civics,” Wright said. She said NJPSA will be joining with other groups across the state to organize a voter registration initiative at high schools in the spring. “We’re hoping to lead a statewide effort,” she said. “We're seeing students realize that the power comes from your voice in terms of your role in a democracy.”

For North Brunswick superintendent Brian Zychowski, the way to keep kids safe and encourage their political involvement is not to suspend students or keep them from protesting but to engage with them.

“I think it’s shortsighted not working with them,” Zychowski told NJ Spotlight. “Discipline is about changing behavior, but learning is about growing and experiencing. I feel that teachers, staff, administrators, and children are all hurting, so I think we should all work together.”

— John Mooney contributed to this story.

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