ACLU-NJ Denounces Sayreville School District’s Heavy-Handed Approach to Student Walkouts

March 12, 2018

Students encouraged to contact ACLU-NJ with stories of protest-related discipline

As students around the country plan coordinated walkouts to protest gun violence on March 14, the Superintendent of Sayreville Public Schools is threatening to suspend students who engage in political protest, even though the district’s code of conduct states that cutting class or leaving campus results in detentions for first time offenses.

“Sayreville’s approach is the most punitive that we’ve heard of in New Jersey,” said Amol Sinha, ACLU-NJ Executive Director. “It leads to absurd results: a student who skips her last class to go to a movie will be treated more leniently than one who leaves class for twenty minutes to make a political point. Instead of resorting to harsh discipline, school districts should embrace moments like this to teach the importance of civic engagement and democracy.”

The Sayreville Public School District plans to issue two-day out-of-school suspensions to high school students who participate in the nationwide walkout scheduled for March 14, by claiming that such protest would amount to “failure to follow administrative direction” or “continued and willful disobedience.” However, according to the district’s code of conduct (page 15 of PDF), students who “leave school without authorization” are only subject to Saturday detentions.

The ACLU-NJ reached out to attorneys for the district in early March, expressing concerns about its heavy-handed approach. Having failed to receive assurances that students’ First Amendment rights would be protected, the ACLU-NJ sent a subsequent letter (PDF) to attorneys for the district on March 5. According to the district’s attorneys, following its meeting on Tuesday evening, the School Board affirmed its plan to issue suspensions to students participating in the walkout.

Unlike Sayreville, other New Jersey school districts are coordinating with students to ensure their safety, and confirming in advance that they will not be disciplined for participating in the walkout. For example, according to a news report, North Brunswick is engaging with students, and will not suspend them or keep them from protesting. The New Jersey School Boards Association also issued guidance (PDF) that offers alternatives to discipline, including building an educational event around the walkout.

“As students nationwide are confronting fears over their personal safety in school, educators can focus on how to foster a supportive environment and nurture student efforts to learn for themselves about participatory democracy,” said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. “The ACLU-NJ supports students in expressing their political beliefs and stands ready to support them if they receive more severe punishment because of the political nature of their conduct.”

In early March, the ACLU-NJ distributed an open letter to school administrators encouraging them to seize this moment as a practical lesson in civic engagement and refrain from disciplining them. The ACLU-NJ is collecting information from students about their experiences with the protests and the discipline of political speech, and encourages students and families to share stories with the ACLU-NJ online if they're subject to school discipline.

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