Chanting "Save our teachers," about 100 students walked out of Mainland Regional High School at noon Friday, while at Oakcrest Regional High School about 100 more gathered in the auditorium in a raucous meeting with teachers and administrators.
Rumors of mass walkouts at noon — in support of teachers and staff members whose jobs are targeted in their districts' 2010-11 budgets — spread via Facebook and text messages among students at several high schools across Atlantic County
As administrators learned of the planned protests, loudspeakers blared out warnings of consequences and discipline. Egg Harbor Township High School officials threatened to deny students the right to walk at graduation, or even to bar them from attending prom, if they stepped out of their classrooms — which, as it turns out, they didn't.
In Linwood, however, about 100 Mainland students walked out the door to protest the proposed layoffs of 13 teachers and five staff members there — defying loudspeaker messages from the principal that "there would be consequences" — in a demonstration that participants said was fully student-organized.
Students shouted "We want our teachers to stay" and "we have the numbers behind us now", and even showed support for the school security officer on hand for the demonstration — who himself was one of the employees who would be laid off.
Freshman Callum Hicks of Northfield had a folder full of flyers asking residents to attend the public hearing about the budget at 7 p.m. on March 31, plus names and numbers of state and local officials.
"We wanted to go outside and show our support for teachers, to go around knocking on doors and give them flyers," Hicks said. "There were no teachers involved, just student organizers."
The majority of students returned to school after about 15 minutes, when Superintendent Thomas Baruffi told those gathered that "If you go back inside, there would be no discipline."
Hicks, for his part, said he wasn't worried about potential consequences.
"Well, they said they would suspend us if we walked out," Hicks said. "But if they suspend us for one day, it doesn't matter if the teachers are (gone) for our entire lives."
Baruffi, who said that any disciplinary action would still have to be determined, said he was happy that, out of a student body of about 1600 students, "no more than 100 went out and just about every one of them went back in."
He added that he had spoken with students earlier in the day about the dire situation facing the district and the state.
"We have to get the message out there about what is really happening with the budget, and what they have to do," he said. "If they really want to make a difference, they have to understand the budget."
"There are a lot of seniors who can vote," he added.
The importance of the April 20 vote on the proposed budget was a key part of the demonstration, with Hicks's flyers containing the phrase "We're all in this boat! Give the school a vote!" and another wearing a sign proclaiming "Pass the Budget ... 13 is too much."
One of the arguments Baruffi made over the loudspeaker was that it was Mainland students who originated the walkout idea in the first place, with students at three other high schools then following suit. A Press of Atlantic City story posted Thursday afternoon quoted a student as saying a noon walkout was planned.
"I came here in the belief that Mainland was different," Baruffi said. "If every high school in the area is doing the same thing ... if you want to be different, do something different.
Ironically, Mainland ended up being different in that no other high schools saw students walking out the door.
At Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, the only outside movement shortly before noon was repeated circling of the campus by two Hamilton Township police vehicles.
When noon came, however, about 100 students shouted, cheered, clapped and booed as they gathered in the auditorium "to express their opinions," said Steven Ciccariello, interim superintendent for the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District.
The Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District, which includes Oakcrest and Absegami high schools, introduced a budget that would eliminate 43 positions.
Ciccariello said he didn't believe the teachers spurred the students' actions, or that there would be any repercussions for those who walked into the auditorium.
"I'm not looking to squash the student voice, but I'm glad it's in a peaceful manner," he said.
Cicciarello later sent an e-mail indicating that "There was some unrest in the building for about an hour to hour and a half that was handled by administrators and staff. By the end of the day, it was business as usual."
At Absegami High School in Galloway Township, students did not carry out the rumored demonstration. Text messages flew among some students, instructing them to leave at 12:30 p.m. — students that stay in school until that time are credited for a full day — but of the dozens of students that did exit the building around that time, parents mostly signed them out for normal reasons.
School officials took a harsher line at Egg Harbor Township High School, whose district faces 70 cuts of teachers and staff. Many students wore black Thursday in solidarity.
But about an hour before the planned walkout, an announcement went out over the school's loudspeakers — confirming that a student walkout was planned and threatening punishment for any students who participate.
Police vehicles sat near the school's front entrance, waiting for a protest that never materialized.
Assistant superintendent Donald Robertson said he wasn't sure how the walkout rumor started, adding that students are just caught up in the situation, afraid that their teachers could lose their jobs.
"I don't think Egg Harbor Township students are any different than any other school going through a crisis," Robertson said.
Back at Mainland, meanwhile, student Stephanie Osoria said that another protest, featuring several of the teachers whose jobs are threatened by the budget, was scheduled for Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in the parking lot in front of the school. Mainland is holding Saturday classes to make up for a snow, and classes get out at 12:20.
Staff writers Emily Previti, Christopher Ramirez and Dan Good contributed to this story.
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