FREEHOLD, N.J. – Contract talks between a striking teachers’ union and a school board broke off early Dec. 5 as 43 teachers spent their first night in jail for defying a judge’s back-to-work order.

Striking Middletown school teachers dug in their heels Dec. 4, as dozens more chose to be hauled off to jail in handcuffs rather than obey a judge’s order to return to work without a contract.

For a second day, hundreds of teachers massed in the square in front of the Monmouth County Hall of Records here to await their turn in front of Superior Court Judge Clarkson S. Fisher Jr.

Fisher, who jailed four teachers Monday for disobeying the back-to-work order he signed last week, sent another 43 away Tuesday.

The jailed teachers will appear in front of Fisher in a week to have their cases reviewed, if they haven’t returned to work by then.

The teachers appeared to have grown even more defiant. They were caught off-guard when Fisher began sending them to jail Monday, making them the first New Jersey teachers in more than 20 years to be locked up on contempt charges. Tuesday, many came to court prepared for jail, carrying toothbrushes, prescription medications and other personal effects.

In New Jersey, it is illegal for public school teachers to strike.

“We keep getting stepped on,” Barbara Bachmeister, one of the jailed teachers, said when she appeared in Fisher’s courtroom. “After awhile, you have to stand up and do what’s right. That’s what we’re doing.”

Judge Fisher took the extraordinary step Monday against members of the Middletown Township Education Association who defied a back-to-work order he issued last week. The teachers have been working without a contract since June, and union officials said the two sides are still unable to agree on health benefit costs. On Monday, with the district’s schools shut down for a third day, the judge began calling the teachers alphabetically.

Robert Abbot, 49, was the first to be sent to jail after answering “yes” when asked if he had knowingly defied the order and saying he didn’t intend to return to work on Tuesday. Joining him later were Steve Antonucci, a physical education teacher and football coach, whose team won the state championship on Saturday; Michelle Armistead, a special education teacher; and Patricia Ayling.

“I feel terrible, to be honest with you,” Antonucci told Fisher. “I got into this business to teach children, and that’s what I did,” he said. But he added: “I’m married with two kids and my wife’s pregnant. I love my family and I’d do anything to support them.”

At issue in this year’s strike are health insurance benefits. The teachers’ contract expired June 30. The board wants teachers to pay 12 percent of their premiums through payroll deductions; the teachers’ union says the proposal would cost each of its members $2,500 a year. Middletown teachers earn an average of $56,300 a year.

The strike began Nov. 30. On Friday, teachers were served with papers ordering them to court at 2 p.m. Monday. Hundreds milled about in the public square outside the courthouse while waiting to be called. The hearings began with legal wrangling designed to settle the issue short of jail, but it ended with the judge saying the only “effective and reasonable way” to end the strike was through incarceration.

Association President Diane Swaim said teachers aren’t giving up without a fight.

“We are determined to see this through to the end. If it means every one of us goes to jail, so be it,” she told teachers at a rally after the hearing. The group chanted the union slogan: “You can break a twig, but you can’t break a bundle.”

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