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 (firstname.lastname@example.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.
What was the superintendent's reasoning for firing Harris?
Cassell insists the hoodie fundraiser was not the cause of Harris' firing, telling the Detroit Free Press, "I lived the civil rights movement ... I certainly would not use this issue as a reason to terminate anybody."
She told the Associated Press that teachers should focus on learning, not activism, and that there are consequences for violating workplace rules.
In other words, teachers should teach their students to sit down, shut up, and do their test prep.
They should teach their students to divorce themselves from their true feelings of concern and fear over Trayvon Martin's murder, forget what's happening in the real world and focus on their Endless Test Prep and the rules and regulations of their school.
Because at charter schools, nothing is more important than rules and regulations.
As Superintendent Cassell says, there are "consequences for violating workplace rules," even when the teacher hasn't actually, you know, violated any workplace rules.
On the school's website, they have the following motto:
I am a Pontiac Academy for Excellence student, I can make a difference; my heart believes it, therefore I can achieve it.
Clearly this motto is meaningless to the people running the Pontiac Academy for Excellence because Brooke Harris was helping her kids to make a difference in the world, helping them to achieve something their heart believed in, but because the superintendent of the school didn't hold the same values, the teacher was fired and the students were given the message "We don't care what you think, feel or want. Sit down, shut up and do your test prep!"
This incident is emblematic of not only the charter school movement, which pays lip service to civil rights and equality but mostly teaches students of color to be obedient test takers and rule observers, but also to the education reform movement overall, which fetishizes test-taking and test scores over everything else, which privileges only one kind of very narrow academic learning over a holistic education, which sends children the message that "Nobody gives a shit about what you think or feel!" (as the developer of the ELA Common Core standards said at an NYSED meeting last April.)
What should happen here is that the superintendent of these three schools should be fired and barred from working in education again.
Clearly anybody as tone deaf and clueless as Cassell to say she doesn't care what the kids are feeling over the Trayvon shooting, the only thing school is for is "learning" (i.e., the kind of thing that can be "tested") shouldn't have any power over any student, teacher or school.
In addition, the teacher, Brooke Harris, should be reinstated at the school and compensated for all salary lost due to her suspensions and firing.
And finally the Pontiac School for Excellence should try really, really hard to prove that charter schools are not about oppressing students of color by teaching them that nothing matters more than rules and regulations, that student activism is harmful and unwanted, that students must learn to divorce themselves from their feelings in order to "achieve excellence" in this world.
Unfortunately it seems most in the charter school and education reform movements seem to believe just the opposite of that.
You can write the "superintendent" of the school here (email@example.com) and let her know how outrageous her actions were.
You can sign a petition calling for Brooke Harris' reinstatement here.