PONTIAC (WWJ/AP) – Activists are planning a protest in support of a Pontiac teacher who says she was fired for helping students organize a fundraiser in support of the family Trayvon Martin, a teen shot to death by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer.
A news conference was planned for Tuesday, followed by a rally for justice at 6 p.m. at Detroit’s Historic King Solomon Baptist Church, in support of Brooke Harris — who was fired from her job at Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said that Harris was fired in March “with little explanation” from the charter school.
Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell said she couldn’t discuss personnel matters such as Harris’s firing but said she wants students’ focus at the end of the school year to be on learning, not activism.
“In every situation, there are work rules,” Cassell said. “When rules are violated, there are consequences.”
“I’m a child of the civil rights movement,” the superintendent said. She said she has supported the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the past but said “this is not the time in the school year” for efforts that distract from academics.
According to the rights group, Harris, a literature teacher, was asked by her eighth-grade journalism students about the Feb. 26 death of Martin, 17, who was unarmed when he was shot in Sanford, Fla. No charges have been filed.
Harris gave the students an editorial-writing assignment on the shooting, the group said. It said the students wanted to help Martin’s family and asked the school’s administrators for permission to wear hoodies for a day in his memory, the group said. Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was killed.
The plan was for each student to pay $1 to wear the hoodie instead of the school’s uniform, the group said. It said the school regularly has fundraisers in which students can “dress down.”
Cassell rejected the request, and she suspended Harris for requesting that students be allowed to make their request in person, the group said.
Harris then was fired for showing up at the school during her suspension, the group said. It said Harris had gone to the school to drop off prizes she had bought for the students.
“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,” Harris told the Detroit Free Press. “When I tried to defend myself, it was construed as insubordination.”
“Schools should encourage teachers to challenge their students to think critically about the world around them, rather than condemn them,” Jerri Katzerman, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s deputy legal director. “What sort of message does it send to young children when their teacher is fired for helping them understand the world around them?”
A petition calling for Harris’ reinstatement can be signed online at www.change.org.
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