04/09/2012

SPLC Demands Reinstatement of Michigan Teacher Fired over Trayvon Martin Fundraiser

The SPLC 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 teen who was fatally shot in a Florida neighborhood earlier this year.

Brooke Harris, who taught at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School and was voted Teacher of the Year for two out of the last three years, was fired from the charter school late last month with little explanation. A petition calling for Ms. Harris’ reinstatement can be signed online.

The SPLC is concerned that the firing will create a climate of fear in which teachers may believe they’re putting their careers at risk by using current events to engage students in the classroom.

“It is disheartening that a teacher would be fired for supporting the altruistic actions of her students – a fundraiser for a family that has experienced a tragic loss,” said Maureen Costello, director of the SPLC Teaching Tolerance’s program. “Firing teachers who engage their students with real world events sends a dangerous message to teachers and students alike. It turns school into a punitive place where questioning the world around you can result in swift and severe punishment.” 

When Harris, a literature teacher, was asked by her eighth-grade journalism students last month if she knew anything about “the kid who was killed over some Skittles,” she decided to assign them an editorial writing project on the subject of Martin, whose shooting death has sparked a national outcry and raised questions about race and racial profiling.
 
Harris’ students, many of whom are African American, also wanted to help Martin’s family. The students wrote letters to the school’s principal and superintendent asking permission to wear hoodies for a day to show their support for Martin’s family. Each student who participated in the fundraiser would pay $1 to wear the clothing instead of their uniforms. The money raised would be donated to Martin’s family. Such fundraisers are common at the school. About once a month, it has fundraisers where students can “dress down.”  
 
Academy Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell rejected the request. Harris asked if the students could present their idea in person but was criticized by Cassell for even making the request. Harris was suspended for two days. The dispute eventually led to her firing.

“I feel bad for my kids,” Harris said. “I feel bad that now not just society is underestimating them, but so is a woman who is supposed to be looking out for their education.”

The SPLC is working to reform harsh school discipline policies that unnecessarily push children out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. It is also concerned about the lack of oversight for charter schools, which can prevent students from receiving the education they deserve.

When teachers receive harsh punishment – even termination – for small infractions, it harms students by threatening to stifle learning in the classroom, said Jerri Katzerman, SPLC deputy legal director.

“Schools should encourage teachers to challenge their students to think critically about the world around them, rather than condemn them,” Katzerman said. “What sort of message does it send to young children when their teacher is fired for helping them understand the world around them?”

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