NJ students walk out of ‘unsafe’ high school, want teacher reinstated
CHERRY HILL — Students walked out of high school Tuesday morning in protest of the suspension of a teacher who raised concerns about school safety.
Defying administrators who threatened students with suspension and canceling prom, hundreds of students demonstrated outside Cherry Hill High School East around 8 a.m., chanting "Free Mr. Locke."
Passing drivers honked in support. TV helicopters hovered over the athletic field where students gathered before returning to class.
The walkout was prompted by the suspension of history teacher Timothy Locke last week after he discussed his security concerns during one of his classes.
Locke told New Jersey 101.5 that he’s been advised by his attorney not to discuss the situation — but still said his comments were made out of love for students and that he would make them again.
The Board of Education was scheduled to have a public meeting Tuesday evening.
The demonstration comes amid heightened security at schools following the fatal mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and a rash of social media threats against New Jersey schools that in some cases have resulted in the arrest of students on charges of causing public alarm.
In Lakewood on Tuesday, the high school was placed on lockdown as a result of suspicious email sent to police "threatening harm," officials said. Officials said two students were questioned and one was arrested.
In Cherry Hill, students who talked to reporters Tuesday morning said they needed to walk in order to make their voices heard about lax security at the school with an enrollment of more than 2,000.
“We don’t feel safe coming to school and that’s not OK. We’re 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, 14-year-olds, we’re all ages, we need school safety," one student said.
Another student said, “School security is virtually is non-existent and that’s why we’re out here. We don’t feel safe in our school. None of us feel safe in our school and we’re out here because we want to feel safe in our school.”
Another student said the district was willing to spend thousands of dollars sending education officials to conferences but they seemed unwilling to spend money to fix broken school security cameras or to install metal detectors and door locks.
One student cited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration for their walkout because he used peaceful demonstration to make his concerns heard.
Rachel Wimmer told New Jersey 101.5 that the problem at the school is that “you can basically just walk in (and) nobody really checks you. There’s really no security at the front doors.”
She said after the recent school shooting rampage in Florida, “it makes us kind of scared that if someone were to walk in, or were to try and harm anybody in the school, there wouldn’t be any protection, anything can happen at any time.”
Wimmer said the school has two security guards, but they only carry pepper spray and a baton.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Superintendent Joseph Meloche did not address Locke or concerns about security within Cherry Hill East. Meloche said he supports students' efforts to make their voices heard but wants to make sure they do it in a safe manner.
He said walkouts are a "deviation" to the school's standard security policies and create "the potential of creating an unsafe situation for participants." He asked that possible related events coming in March and April be held indoors.
"We will continue our dialog with our students, parents, staff and community members regarding safety, security an the student voice in our schools. We are always striving to improve in all that we do," Meloche said.
Students told New Jersey 101.5 they were warned as they exited that they faced disciplinary action if they left school property. The cheerleading coach in a message told squad members that those who walked would not be allowed to cheer at Tuesday night's basketball game.