NJ Students Walk Out to Protest Budget Cuts

It's the modern-day version of a grass roots protest.

Thousands of students throughout New Jersey pledged on a Facebook page to walkout of class at 8 a.m. today to protest budget cuts which are slashing school programs.

While peaceful in almost all respects, there were some arrests.

At Montclair High School hundreds of students walked out of classes at the stroke of eight, chanting, "No more budget cuts." 

By midday, walkouts were reported from Rancocas Valley High School in Mount Holly to West Orange High School. Students in Newark marched by the thousands from City Hall down Broad Street to Military Park.

Newark Police Tuesday night reported 3 arrests after the protest, but one was by an adult and it was not clear if he is still a student. He was charged with the theft of a wallet.

Late in the afternoon, well after the march was over, police said two juveniles were arrested and charged with the assault and robbery of a delivery boy as he attempted to make a delivery.

A crowd that appeared to number as high as three thousand was peaceful though during the hours of the protest itself.

The Facebook page (created by someone who appears to be a former student turned activist) says more than 17,500 have already pledged to walkout and another 14,700 have said they might.

The young protesters say they are risking in-school suspensions but it's worth it.

Donyn Bunn, 16 and a senior at American History High School in Newark participated in the walkout. " (Gov.) Chris Christie, he's cutting back on our education, and not only our education. He's cutting back on the quality of our students and our teachers," Bunn said.

Raul Ausa, 16, is a sophomore at West Orange High School and an organizer of that school's protest, which drew some 250 students. "We don't want our budgets to be cut, we don't want our programs to be cut," Ausa said.

West Orange High School Principal Arthur Alloggianmento said it was a learning experience for his students, "The students that went out there really felt strongly about the budget cuts and wanted to express that and I think they did that very eloquently."

Organizer Michelle Lauto, who graduated last year from Old Tappan High School in Bergen County and is now a student at Pace University in New York, said she wanted to join the cause because her mother is a teacher and her sister is a school secretary.

"What we want to do is get attention to the issue and show primarily that the youth is not apathetic to the issue," said Lauto, 18, an actress who's especially concerned that arts programs could be eliminated.

Just before noon, Gov. Chris Christie released a statement saying students "belong in the classroom."

"we hope all efforts were made to curtail student walkouts," said Christie. "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.  Students would be better served if they were given a full, impartial understanding of the problems that got us here in the first place and why dramatic action was needed.”

The New Jersey Dept. of Education Commissioner Bret Schundler added, “Schools should enforce their attendance policies. They should not be permitting students to walk out of class.”

This is just the latest battle in the war over school funding.

It comes after last week's bombshell, where more than 58 percent of voters statewide said no to the proposed school budgets -- a modern day record.

The voters strongly opposed any form of tax increase, leaving those districts to come up with a funding solution by mid-May that will likely include wage freezes for teachers.

That is in line with what Governor Christie has been suggesting when he proposed slashing $820 million from the education budget to offset an $11 billion budget gap.

Christie says layoffs can be avoided, though, if school employees agree to one-year salary freezes and to start paying 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health insurance premiums.

 Most of the state's teachers unions have balked at the notion, though, saying Christie is unfairly trying to balance the state's budget at their expense. Christie has been unapologetic, consistently criticizing the leaders of the New Jersey Education Association for being selfish.

The NJEA says students are "engaging in civil disobedience" but shouldn't walk out of classes.

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