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, 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 Association 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 per person, per 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. 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.
“I try to teach my students this country is fair and just,” Guenther, 57, told Superior Court Judge Ira Kreizman this week, 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.
“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.
At least three teachers Thursday resigned or retired rather than be sent to jail. High school literature teacher Jennifer Laughlin announced to the judge that she was resigning after five years.
“I’m totally disheartened by the treatment by the board of education and the lack of support for teachers in our community,” Laughlin said after she left the courtroom.
Dozens of others have avoided jail altogether by citing family responsibilities or medical problems — high blood pressure, single parenthood, an elderly parent in need of care. 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 or filed a worker’s compensation claim. She was excused after telling the judge she had two young children to care for.
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.
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.
Add in the worsening economy and fallout from layoffs at nearby Lucent Technologies, and there appears to be little sympathy for what some residents consider money-hungry teachers.
“With everything that is going on in this world due to the tragic attacks of Sept. 11, can’t anybody sit down and be thankful for what they have?” one resident wrote in an e-mail to the Board of Education.