A civil rights advocacy group is pressing Pontiac, Mich., charter school officials to reinstate a Black 26 year-old middle school teacher who was fired over what she says was her role in encouraging student support for the family of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
The plight of Brooke Harris, who twice has been named Teacher of the Year at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School, is becoming part of the firestorm that has evolved in the aftermath of the Feb. 16 shooting death of the unarmed 17 year-old in Sanford, Fla.
So far, an estimated 30,000 signatures calling for her reinstatement have been attached to an online petition generated by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Teaching Tolerance project, a rally supporting her was staged at the suburban Detroit school and, on national television when the charges were announced against Martin’s self-admitted shooter, Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple AME pastor Jamal Bryant voiced support for her.
“We stand with Brooke Harris, the middle school teacher in Michigan who was fired,” he said.
“I’m confused, I don’t really know why I was fired,” Harris told Detroit CBS affiliate WWJ-TV. “I know the circumstances around it. I know it had to have something to do with the fundraiser my students .” Harris was suspended on March 27 and later dismissed by Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell after asking Cassell if a small number of students, at their request, could conduct a fundraiser for the Martin family. The event called for students to give $1 in order to wear a hoodie on a day already designated as an “out-of-uniform” day for students. Martin was wearing a hoodie when he encountered an armed neighborhood watch volunteer.
Cassell rejected the request and suspended Harris for two days.
When the teacher returned to the school to deliver materials for a literacy showcase she had previously organized, the suspension was increased to two weeks. She was fired after she asked for an explanation detailing her original suspension.
The SPLC, an Alabama-based nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, quickly came to Harris’ support.
“Young people have to feel empowered. They have to feel like they can be agents of change. I think her firing just sends the message: ‘Don’t cross the system- Don’t question it, accept the decisions that are made and move on.’ That is the wrong message to send to kids,” said Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program.
The education branch of the civil rights organization has rallied teachers and communities across the nation to put pressure on the school board to reinstate Harris.
“We talk with teachers all the time about the best ways to bring up issues that are difficult to bring up- but which we have to talk about, such as race, such as oppression and uncomfortable topics of all kinds and she did it right,” said Costello.
Pontiac Academy’s Cassell told ABC News that although she was raised during the civil rights movement, students could not afford to be sidetracked from their studies at this time. “In every situation, there are work rules. When rules are violated, there are consequences.”
Trayvon Martin, who is Black, was shot and killed by 28-year-old George Zimmerman, a White neighborhood watch volunteer, while walking to the house of his father’s fiancée from a convenience store. After Zimmerman told a police dispatcher Martin was “real suspicious,” the neighborhood watch volunteer said he followed the youth and shot him during a physical confrontation.
Two months later Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder. He claims he acted in self defense.