New Jersey teachers sent to jail for striking

Friday, December 7, 2001

FREEHOLD, N.J. -- History teacher Barbara Guenther hasn't missed a day of class in 37 years. Now, she is spending her days in a 9-by-9 jail cell, locked up along with scores of other striking teachers in a bitter lesson in civil disobedience.

Among them is Arline Corbett, 57, a veteran teacher who jokingly says she is so law-abiding she still has the "do not remove under penalty of law" tags on her old mattresses.

Then there is physical education teacher Steve Antonucci, who was the toast of the town last weekend after coaching the Middletown Township High School South Tigers to a state football championship.

Two days later, he was in jail, eating bologna sandwiches and standing for twice-a-day head counts with alleged killers, carjackers and petty crooks.

"This is the reward I get," the 30-year-old coach told a judge before being led away in handcuffs like all the others.

By the end of the day Thursday, nearly 230 striking teachers in well-to-do Middletown Township had been jailed this week for violating a back-to-work order. They are the first New Jersey teachers to be locked up in 23 years, and some 500 more could follow suit.

It is the biggest mass jailing of striking teachers since 1978, when 265 were locked up for 18 days in Bridgeport, Conn., according to National Education Association spokeswoman Darryl Figueroa.

'Become a war'

It is so busy at the courthouse that hearings have been assigned to three judges.

The teachers, who make an average of $56,000 annually, are fighting a move to increase their health care premiums by up to $600 per person, per year. Currently, they pay $250.

None of the district's 10,500 students have been in class since Nov. 28 and the two sides remain far apart. The Board of Education received a death threat this week in a message left by a caller.

"It's become a war," Schools Superintendent Jack DeTalvo said.

The teachers have been called before judges in alphabetical order -- how else? -- starting with the As on Monday, the Bs on Tuesday and moving into the Os, Ps, Qs and Rs by Thursday.

Many have made impassioned, Patrick Henry-like speeches about willingness to suffer the consequences of their defiance, their love of the job, and their contempt for Board of Education leaders.

Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr., who imposed the back-to-work order, said he decided on the one-week jail terms because he was concerned fines would not get teachers back to work.

"You are holding the keys to the jail," Fisher told one group of strikers. "Any time you want to come out, let me know and you are out."

Eight of those who were jailed were released on Thursday after pleading hardship and agreeing to return to work.

Dozens of others have avoided jail altogether by citing family responsibilities or medical problems. Fisher has been lenient but not always patient.

Special education teacher Kate Cosgrove told Fisher in a long monologue how she bought classroom equipment with her own money, and never complained. She was excused after telling the judge she had two young children.

As she walked out of the courtroom, Fisher said: "It's a good thing there wasn't a back door at the Alamo."

Others have gone proudly, holding handcuffed wrists up in the air as they were escorted to sheriff's department vans for the half-mile trip to the jail.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: