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Archive for Friday, December 7, 2001

Jailed teachers hope to set example in civil disobedience

December 7, 2001

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— 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 said 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, 228 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.

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 Assn. spokeswoman Darryl Figueroa.

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 a person, a year. Currently, they pay $250.

None of the district's 10,500 students has been in class since Nov. 28 and the two sides remain far apart.

"It's become a war," schools Supt. Jack DeTalvo said.

The teachers have been called before judges in alphabetical order how else? starting with the A's on Monday, the B's on Tuesday and moving into the O's, P's, Q's and R's 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.

"I try to teach my students this country is fair and just," Guenther, 57, told Superior Court Judge Ira Kreizman , her voice breaking. "In this process, the law is not fair and just. Sometimes, good people have to stand up to fight an unjust law, and that's what I'm doing."

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.

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

At least three teachers Thursday resigned or retired rather than be sent to jail.

Middletown Township, a bedroom community of 66,000 people about 45 miles from New York City, was one of New Jersey's hardest-hit towns in the World Trade Center attacks. Three dozen Middletown residents were among the victims Sept. 11.

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