While many New Jersey school districts worked with students to organize planned walkouts against gun violence Wednesday, others actively discouraged pupils from taking part in the peaceful protests.
Students across the U.S. and the region participated in the National School Walkout to honor the 17 students and teachers killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida last month.
Not all of the events in New Jersey occurred with the blessing of school administrators. At least one didn’t occur at all.
In New Providence, dozens of students in the Union County district walked out of their classes around 10 a.m when the national event was planned, despite warnings from school officials to stay inside.
Last week, principal Lauren Zirpoli sent a letter to parents, noting that students would not be permitted to leave class midmorning because “it presents a negative impact on classroom learning as it will interfere with valuable instruction time.” The letter did not specify what punishment students would face if they walked out.
Emily Kapp, a sophomore at New Providence High School, said nearly 200 students left class and went outside without knowing what repercussions awaited them.
“A lot of people at the beginning thought it was going to be a suspension. They thought it was going to be pretty severe, and that caused a lot of hesitation,” Emily said. The administration “really didn’t want to tell us what was going to happen.”
School officials said students would be allowed to protest only after school let out at the end of the day.
Emily’s mother, Christina Kapp, said she encouraged her daughter to “follow her conscience” and was proud of how Emily and her classmates handled the situation.
“I’m so impressed with how the students have conducted themselves, in looking at what the school’s decision was, deciding how they wanted to respond to it, and acting according to their conscience,” Kapp said. “I feel like what happened today was an incredible show of respect for the school — even though they disagreed.”
Zirpoli did not respond to a request for comment.
Further south, at the Southern Regional School District in Manahawkin, students were unable to walk out, according to one parent whose son attends a district school.
Lily Veksler, whose son goes to Southern Regional Middle School, said the Ocean County district had planned an active shooter drill for Wednesday, which school officials said had been scheduled before the Parkland shooting occurred. Last month, thousands of district students walked out to protest gun violence.
School officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Throughout the day, the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter monitored incidents of students being prevented from walking out or disciplined for taking part in the protest, including one student who was reportedly booted from the National Honor Society over her participation in the protest.
Amol Sinha, the executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, said the nonprofit wanted to make sure that schools were not punishing students more harshly than normal simply because the students were staging a political protest.
“We understand that schools have a unique responsibility over the lives of children, and they need to maintain a certain degree of order,” Sinha said. “But school districts should be encouraging students to have conversations about civic engagement and making sure that children not only feel safe in their schools, but are challenged intellectually.”