Michigan Teacher Fired For Helping Student Fundraiser For Trayvon Martin

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Common Dreams

Michigan Teacher Fired For Helping Student Fundraiser For Trayvon Martin

by
Common Dreams staff

Brooke Harris

The Southern Poverty Law Center is calling for the reinstatement of a Michigan teacher who was fired recently for helping students organize a fundraiser for the family of Trayvon Martin, the teenage boy who was shot to death in a Florida neighborhood in February.

Brooke Harris, an eighth grade teacher at a charter school (the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School)  in Pontiac, Michigan, saw Trayvon Martin’s death as a moment when many of her students were politically engaged and energized. They wanted to help Martin’s parents, and so she tried to take the moment as an opportunity to teach them how to plan a fundraiser. They came up with a proposal: Every student would donate one dollar to wear a hoodie for the day.

According to the SPLC, the principal of the school signed off on the kids’ proposal, but then superintendent Jacqueline Cassell (cassellj@pontiacacademy.org) got involved:

She refused to approve the proposal, despite having supported many other “dress down” fundraisers. Brooke’s students took the disappointment in stride, but asked to present their idea to Cassell in person. . . . Brooke asked that a few of her students be allowed to attend her meeting with Cassell. Outraged by the request, Cassell suspended Brooke for two days. The explanation given—she was being paid to teach, not to be an activist.

Those two days morphed into a two-week, unpaid suspension when Brooke briefly stopped by the afterschool literacy fair (she had previously organized) to drop off prizes (paid for with her own money) and to pick up materials for several students whose parents were unable to attend. Supporting her students was insubordination.

The final offense? Brooke asked Cassell to clarify her original transgression so she could learn from her mistake. Cassell referred her to the minutes of their first meeting. Still confused, Brooke again requested an explanation. Cassell fired her.

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The Detroit Free Press reports:

A national civil rights group is calling on a Pontiac charter school to reinstate a teacher who said she was fired for helping students organize a fund-raiser to benefit the family of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. [...]

Brooke Harris, the fired teacher, said Monday that students in her yearbook class came to her a couple of weeks ago, wanting to organize a fund-raiser in which each would pay $1 to veer from the school's dress code to wear hoodies to school. They would be similar to the hoodie Martin was wearing when he was killed Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla.

Harris said the principal signed off on the fund-raiser, but Cassell said no. Harris said she asked whether students could meet with Cassell to make their case, as they had suggested, and she was suspended for two days.

"I was told I was a bad teacher, that I was being unprofessional, that I'm being paid to teach, not to be an activist. When I tried to defend myself, it was construed as insubordination.""I was told I was a bad teacher, that I was being unprofessional, that I'm being paid to teach, not to be an activist. When I tried to defend myself, it was construed as insubordination," Harris said.

Harris came to the school while suspended, which she said was in part to drop off prizes for a literacy fair she helped organize. Harris said her suspension was extended to two weeks, but during a meeting with Cassell, she was fired instead after questioning it.

"I was astonished. I couldn't figure out what I did wrong," Harris said.

Cassell said legal reasons prevent her from discussing the termination, but made it clear she has no problem with the students expressing their views about the Martin case. She said she used to be a member of the SPLC.

"I am a child of the '60s. I lived the civil rights movement. If anybody has a reason to want to be sympathetic, empathetic, the whole nine yards, it would be me," Cassell said. "I certainly would not use this issue as a reason to terminate anybody."

She said she objected to the fund-raiser because it wasn't appropriate for the students to wear hoodies in the manner they planned -- with the hoods over their heads.

Cassell, who earlier announced she is stepping down when the current school year is over, said she has worked during the last three years to turn the school into a charter district.

The SPLC has a petition at www.change.org, demanding Harris' reinstatement. A rally for Harris is being held at 6 tonight at the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit.

Harris said she is not sure what her next step is because her contract provides little due process. "I want my job back, but I'm not entirely sure if that's even possible," she said.

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