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Risky Lesson: Teacher Fired for Bringing Trayvon Martin Into Class

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When Teaching Tolerance -- along with EdWeek, The Huffington Post and others -- urged teachers to recognize that the Trayvon Martin case was a "teachable moment," we all left something out. "

None of us added a warning label: "Follow this advice at your own risk; possible adverse reactions include suspension and loss of your job."

But that's what we realized was at stake soon after we posted a blog about the case. When one teacher mentioned that she was thinking of proposing a Hoodie Day to her administration, another urged caution:

"Be careful," Brooke wrote. "I'm a teacher at a charter school with a fairly strict dress code who did the same on behalf of my 8th grade class. The superintendent disagreed, and I'm currently at home on a two-day suspension."

Wow, we thought. There's got to be more to the story than that. And there was. Two days later, Brooke was back to tell us, "Make that fired. But good for you all who are organizing successful Hoodie Days and making sure our kids are learning the real lessons that they need."

In the days since, we've talked with Brooke. The picture she paints is of an administrator who is out of touch with the needs of students and indifferent to the value and professional expertise of teachers.

My colleague, Alice Pettway, tells the story:

Last month Brooke Harris' eighth-grade class asked her about the "kid who was killed over some skittles"; she seized the opportunity to bring her students' lived experiences into the classroom -- a strategy we and other experts advocate.

Brooke's students identify with Trayvon Martin. Many of them are African American. Many have been stopped by police who thought they looked suspicious.

In fact, her students engaged so deeply with the issue that they asked to take it beyond essays and class discussions -- they wanted to take action to help Trayvon's family.

They, like many students across the nation, wanted to show their support by wearing hoodies. Each student who participated would pay $1. Proceeds would be donated to Trayvon's family.

Again, Brooke saw a teachable moment. She and her students began the formal process of organizing a school event. Students wrote persuasive letters to the principal and superintendent. Brooke and a co-worker filed the necessary paperwork. The principal immediately signed off on the fundraiser.

Superintendent Cassell was less enthusiastic. 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.
And that's when things got weird.

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 after school 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.

That's bad enough, but it gets worse:
  • The Pontiac Academy for Excellence is a charter school, which means that it is a separate school district. There is no union, and Michigan is an "employ at will" state. As far as we can figure out, Brooke has yet to receive written notice of the reasons for her dismissal. There was no hearing, no investigation, no formal appeals process.
  • The firing took place when her students were in class with a substitute. Her keys were confiscated, and security escorted her from the building. Ideas, it turns out, are dangerous things.
  • Brooke was allowed to return during spring break last week, under escort, to collect her personal classroom materials. She was told she would be charged with trespassing if she returned to the campus.

Brooke Harris broke no law yet she was treated like a criminal. Her students were denied any chance to see her or know why they were abandoned. We're calling for Brooke to be reinstated. At the very least, the school board (yes, the charter school has one of those, too) should investigate. And while they're at it, they might come up with some kind of due process for teachers who displease the superintendent.

Sign our petition at Change.org if you agree Brooke should be reinstated.