In New Jersey, a Civics Lesson in the Internet Age
By WINNIE HU
It was a silent call to arms: an easy-to-overlook message urging New Jersey students to take a stand against the budget cuts that threaten class sizes and choices as well as after-school activities. But some 18,000 students accepted the invitation posted last month on Facebook, the social media site better known for publicizing parties and sporting events. And on Tuesday many of them — and many others — walked out of class in one of the largest grass-roots demonstrations to hit New Jersey in years.
The protest disrupted classroom routines and standardized testing in some of the state’s biggest and best-known school districts, offering a real-life civics lesson that unfolded on lawns, sidewalks, parking lots and football fields.
The mass walkouts were inspired by Michelle Ryan Lauto, an 18-year-old aspiring actress and a college freshman, and came a week after voters rejected 58 percent of school district budgets put to a vote across the state (not all districts have a direct budget vote).
“All I did was make a Facebook page,” said Ms. Lauto, who graduated last year from Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, N.J. “Anyone who has an opinion could do that and have their opinion heard. I would love to see kids in high school step up and start their own protests and change things in their own way.”
At Columbia High School in Maplewood, that looked like 200 students marching around the building waving signs reading “We are the future” and “We love our teachers.”
In West Orange, a district that is considering laying off 84 employees, reducing busing, cutting back on music and art, and dropping sports teams, it was high school students rallying in the football stands.
At Montclair High School, it meant nearly half of the 1,900 students gathered outside the school in the morning, with some chanting, “No more budget cuts.”
In the largest showing, thousands of high school students in Newark marched past honking cars stuck in midday traffic to fill the steps of City Hall under the watchful gaze of dozens of police officers.
With their protests, the students sought to send a message to Gov. Christopher J. Christie, a Republican whose reductions in state aid to education had led many districts to cut staff and programs and to ask for larger-than-usual property tax increases. Mr. Christie, who has taken on the state’s largest teachers’ union in his efforts to close an $11 billion deficit, has proposed reducing direct aid to nearly 600 districts by an amount equal to up to 5 percent of each district’s operating budget.
“It feels like he is taking money from us, and we’re already poor,” said Johanna Pagan, 16, a sophomore at West Side High School in Newark, who feared her school would lose teachers and extracurricular programs because of the governor’s cuts. “The schools here have bad reputations, and we need aid and we need programs to develop.”
Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, released a statement on Tuesday saying that students belonged in the classroom. “It is also our firm hope that the students were motivated by youthful rebellion or spring fever,” Mr. Drewniak said, “and not by encouragement from any one-sided view of the current budget crisis in New Jersey.”
Bret D. Schundler, the education commissioner, also urged schools to enforce attendance policies and not let students walk out of class. State education officials said they had a call from one district that had moved students taking standardized tests to another part of the building because of potential noise.
Not every school had students walk out. Nancy Dries, a spokeswoman for the top-ranked Millburn district, which has used surplus money to avoid major cuts, said it was “business as usual” there.
But in many other places, students came to school ready to make a political statement. Emma Wolin, a junior at Columbia High, walked out of second-period Spanish with several classmates, even though the school had warned that they would face detention.
“It’s the activities and school spirit that make Columbia a great school, and I want to keep it that way,” she said.
Judy Levy, a spokeswoman for the South Orange and Maplewood district, said that teachers did mark protesting students absent, and that some students went back and forth between the walkout and their classes, while others chose not to participate because their classes were reviewing for Advanced Placement exams that begin on Monday.
Ms. Lauto, whose message inspired the walkouts, said in an interview that she was amazed and gratified that so many students had responded. She said the state education cuts had really hit home because her mother and sister both work in public schools in Hudson County.
Ms. Lauto, enrolled at Pace University, said she has always had an activist streak. In seventh grade, she tried — but failed — to organize a protest over a new dress code, and after President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, she wrote “Going to Canada, Be Back in 4 Years” on a T-shirt and wore it to class.
But until now, Ms. Lauto said, she has used Facebook only to keep in touch with friends and let them know when she is performing in shows. She alerted those 600 Facebook friends to her message calling for a student walkout and asked them to pass it on.
Within a week, Ms. Lauto received hundreds of responses, not all of them positive. In fact, so many students insulted her and said the walkout was a stupid idea that she disabled the message function on her Facebook page. On Tuesday, Ms. Lauto joined students who walked out of High Tech High School in Bergen County. She said she was not planning any more protests, but hoped that students learned that their voices could be heard.
“I made this page with the best of intentions,” she said. “The fact that it has become so wildly successful — I’m so overwhelmed.”