By Brenda Flanagan
Yessenia Vera checked in with her daughter via Skype this morning after 15-year-old Gabrielle finished breakfast in the Newark School superintendent’s office, along with seven other teens from the Newark Students Union, who locked themselves in there Tuesday night. The students live-streamed all their occupation activities, like arguing about food with administrators.
The administrators delivered it, and the protesters vowed not to leave until state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson met with them and promised to attend the next school advisory board meeting.
“Newark is a tough city. So without the support of our superintendent, or our superintendent who doesn’t listen to us or refuses to speak to us, it’s like, we feel like we don’t matter and it’s just a business and a job for her. Yeah, it’s tiring, but we know that it’s the right thing to do,” Gabrielle said.
“I’m very proud of her, very proud of all of them. Because they’re speaking up for themselves. It’s their education on the line. It’s not Cami’s education on the line, it’s their education. It’s not Chris Christie’s kids on the line, it’s theirs,” Yessenia said.
Anderson — a Chris Christie appointee — swept in three years ago, implementing a controversial reform plan called One Newark. Many in the community complained they felt disenfranchised, disrespected. She’s drawn fire from state and local politicians who stepped forward yesterday to call for Anderson’s resignation and support the students occupying the superintendent’s office.
“And I applaud the efforts of our young people who are enacting their democratic rights to oppose what is happening here in this city and we are not gonna allow them to be starved, to be arrested. Bull Connor does not live in the city of Newark,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
The students didn’t get starved or arrested, but they did finally get their meeting — spending an hour with Anderson this morning.
The superintendent afterward released a statement noting, “The conversation was productive, and we see this as a promising step towards an ongoing constructive dialogue where both sides are heard and valuable learning time is not compromised.”
But the students disagreed, cited what they called Anderson’s “…continued inability to have an open and constructive dialogue with us, she has inevitably created a deep mistrust against the administration and its policies.”
New Jersey Communities United says Anderson even refused to attend future board meetings.
“It’s a democratic process in which people disagree with you and if you can’t handle that, then you shouldn’t be part of a democratic process and step down, which is what we’re saying,” said NJ Communities United Executive Director Trina Scordo.
So what did the protesters actually accomplish? They made you watch.
“Adults have become, we’ve become very complacent. We just kind of go along to get along. We’re gripped by the fear of losing out job, we’re gripped by the fear of losing our home. We’re just gripped by fear. The students have been example of that fearlessness looks like,” said Newark NAACP President Deborah Smith Gregory.
Officials, politicians and educators often insist it’s all about the children, but sometimes that’s lip service. In this case, the children put themselves at center stage, right in the superintendent’s office.