A third-grade teacher who was suspended without pay last week after asking her students to write letters to a man in prison has received both support and criticism from parents and activists.
Marylin Zuniga of Orange Public Schools in New Jersey was suspended after asking her students to write "get well" letters to former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who spent three decades on death row for killing a police officer. He no longer faces the death penalty and is serving a life sentence in prison.
Abu-Jamal has been ill for the past few months and recently spent time in the hospital for high blood sugar. Since he has been behind bars, the radio journalist has gained a large following of supporters -- many of whom believe he is innocent.
Baruch College history professor Johanna Fernandez delivered the letters to Abu-Jamal last week. Fernandez said she thought Abu-Jamal "was touched" to receive the notes, according to The Associated Press.
In a statement issues last week, Orange Public Schools' administrators denied any prior knowledge of the assignment and said they are currently investigating the incident.
"The incident reported is in no way condoned nor does it reflect curriculum, program or activities approved by the district," says the statement, according to NJ.com. District officials did not respond to The Huffington Post's request for comment.
Zuniga's assignment has prompted a range of reactions. While some parents and police leaders are dismayed, many activists have come to the teacher's defense. The hashtag #ISupportMarylin has also gained traction on Twitter.
"If that was her personal business, then she could have kept that her personal business, but the children should have never gotten involved in that," Mike Brown, who has a son in the district, told NJ.com about the teacher's support for Abu-Jamal.
"It's not a good use of school time. It's absolutely not teaching them anything except how to interact with a convicted cop killer," John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, a labor union, told the AP. "So if I was a parent there, I would absolutely be appalled."
On Monday in New Jersey, Larry Hamm, the chairman of progressive grassroots organization People's Organization for Progress, stood before a crowd of 500 people and urged them to support Zuniga. The crowd was gathered for a discussion on issues like police brutality, and included notable attendees including activist Cornel West, NJ.com reported.
"She tried not only to instruct her children in terms of skills, but also tried to help them understand what it means a compassionate human being," Hamm said, according to the outlet. "We need to support this young woman... her heart is the right heart."
Below are some of the tweets from #ISupportMarylin, which show a mix of support and anger for the teacher.
— Freedom Fighter (@Moreaga) April 14, 2015
— 38 PANTHERS (@SaneSkitza) April 14, 2015
— Free Palestine (@LatinaAnarchist) April 14, 2015
— Bruja Quisqueyana (@radicallatina) April 14, 2015
#ISupportMarylin because cultivating spaces for questions and resistance is why schools must create pivotal moments for social change.
— Arash Daneshzadeh (@A_Daneshzadeh) April 14, 2015
#ISupportMarylin Because school systems teach kids WHAT to think instead of HOW to think!
— Damn Gina! (@NateAnto) April 14, 2015
#ISupportMarylin bcuz tching empathy &supporting your students shouldn't be firing offense. Seems innovation only OK if ur white/in burbs.
— Jamie Gravell (@Dontworryteach) April 14, 2015
#ISupportMarylin because the police claiming she is misleading her students are the same ones who will be shooting at them in a few years.
— xian f'znger barrett (@xianb8) April 14, 2015
— misused (@Foreverr_Nayy) April 14, 2015
— Jose Vilson (@TheJLV) April 14, 2015
— Lumbersexual Jew (@LumbersexualJew) April 14, 2015
#ISupportMarylin NOT. I thought progs didnt support folks who shot other folks in the back?
— Hana Five O (@HanaFiveO) April 14, 2015
#ISupportMarylin to be fired and lose her teaching certificate. Her job was to teach reading writing etc. This crosses a line
— Falconeddie (@Falconeddie1) April 14, 2015