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2012-04-13

Despite Praise & Permission, Detroit Teacher Fired for Helping Students’ Trayvon Martin Fundraiser

Guests

Brooke Harris, a former eighth grade charter school teacher in Michigan at Pontiac Academy of Excellence. She was recently fired from her job after helping her students organize a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s parents.

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An eighth grade charter school teacher in Michigan has been fired after helping her students organize a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s parents. Brooke Harris and her students at Pontiac Academy for Excellence drew up a plan to raise money by donating one dollar each to wear a hoodie to school, as Martin had worn when he was shot dead. She obtained permission for the fundraiser, but her superintendent opposed the plan. Harris was initially suspended and then later fired without explanation. "They didn’t want to walk out of class. They didn’t want to wear the hoods over their head. They just wanted to pay a dollar to wear their regular clothes instead of uniform and donate that money to someone else who they saw needed it," Harris says. "I just wanted to know what I specifically did wrong, so I could learn from my alleged mistake and be sure never to do that again." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show with two teachers who have lost their jobs, one in Michigan and the other in Arizona. We go first to Michigan, where an eighth grade charter school teacher has been fired after helping her students organize a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s parents. Brooke Harris and her students at Pontiac Academy for Excellence drew up a plan to raise money by donating $1 each to wear a hoodie to school, as Martin had worn when he was shot dead. She obtained permission for the fundraiser, but her superintendent opposed the plan. Harris was initially suspended and then later fired outright after visiting an after-school literacy fair to support her students.

Harris’s dismissal has received national attention. The Southern Poverty Law Center has taken up the fight for her reinstatement. The nonprofit Teaching Tolerance program started out a petition at Change.org on Harris’s behalf, which has well over 150,000 signatures. Her supporters are planning a rally outside the school next Monday if the superintendent doesn’t hire her back by today. About 200 people attended a similar rally Tuesday.

Reverend Charles Williams of King Solomon Baptist Church has called for Harris to be immediately reinstated.

REV. CHARLES WILLIAMS: We are calling, unequivocally, on the principal and other board members of the Pontiac Academy to rehire her and to reinstate her immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to—that was [Rev. Charles Williams]. [...]

We’re going to Detroit right now to Brooke Harris, who has been fired. She hasn’t taken legal action yet, but hasn’t ruled out the possibility. She says the charter school has no union. Her teacher contract, though, does offer due process. Again, she was fired for helping her students have a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s parents. Meanwhile, the school’s superintendent, Jacqueline Cassell, told Lauren Podell of Local 4 News that the allegations are completely false.

JACQUELINE CASSELL: When you have an idea, the idea goes up the chain. It’s how you respond that makes the difference. I wanted my students to think of our needs before anybody else’s needs.

LAUREN PODELL: And while Cassell couldn’t further comment on personnel issues...

JACQUELINE CASSELL: But I would just say, I would never fire a teacher for the reason that has been given. I would just—that’s just not who I am.

AMY GOODMAN: Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell announced earlier she’s stepping down when the current school year is over. She told the Detroit Free Press she was legally prohibited from discussing the reasons for Harris’s termination, but said she has no problem with students expressing their opinions on the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot by George Zimmerman.

Democracy Now! invited Jacqueline Cassell to join us on the show; she didn’t respond. We also invited the Pontiac Academy for Excellence to submit a statement to be read on the air, but received no response.

We’re going now to Brooke Harris in Detroit, who has worked at Pontiac Academy for Excellence for three years, winning the "teacher of the year" award twice.

Brooke Harris, welcome to Democracy Now! What happened?

BROOKE HARRIS: I wish I knew. I’m still—I’m confused. My students brought up the subject in class. They were talking about it on their own while working on the actual class assignments I had assigned. A couple of them asked me if I had heard about it. And jumping on the interest of the students, who, this particular group, don’t do a lot of writing for me, so seeing that they were interested in this topic and wanting to use best practices in English and give them an outlet to write, we wrote editorials. And they were deeply affected. They made it very personal, so much so that they wanted to do more. They wanted to do the fundraiser. They didn’t want to disrupt school. They didn’t want to walk out of class. They didn’t want to wear the hoods over their head. They just wanted to pay a dollar to wear their regular clothes instead of uniform and donate that money to someone else who they saw needed it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And then the reaction that you got, what was the official reason that you were given for your dismissal?

BROOKE HARRIS: The official reasons were insubordination and unprofessionalism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And did they explain what they meant by that, what actions that they purport that you took to warrant those accusations?

BROOKE HARRIS: No. And it was actually when I asked that question that I was terminated, because I wasn’t going to argue my initial suspension. I’m sure she had her reason. She was my boss. It wasn’t my place to argue it. I just wanted to know what I specifically did wrong, so I could learn from my alleged mistake and be sure never to do that again. And it was when I asked that question that I was called insubordinate for the last time and terminated on the spot.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t the principal support you in what you were doing?

BROOKE HARRIS: He did. I filled out the proper paperwork. I went through the proper channels. I did everything that I needed to do on my end, and I got approval from my principal.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the reaction of your students? I mean, you were voted teacher of—best teacher twice.

BROOKE HARRIS: Mm-hmm. From what I’ve heard, they were very upset. I’ve heard a lot of them are crying. I’ve heard a lot of them are still writing to the superintendent. I don’t know if she’s received or if she’s willing to read the letters. I’ve also heard they’ve been making posters of "We miss you, Ms. Harris. Please come back. Let Ms. Harris come back." I’ve met with a couple of them in person, and they’ve said the same thing about how they miss me, how they think this is unfair. They wish that I could come back, because not only was I a good teacher, but I was good to come and talk to. I would help them with things outside of just their assignments.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we just have a few seconds, but could you tell us, is there an appeals process to the board of the school that you can go through to appeal this decision?

BROOKE HARRIS: There isn’t. I was an at-will employee. I could have been fired or I could have quit for any or no reason at all. So I attempted to contact and email the school board, but there is nothing official I can do.

AMY GOODMAN: Brooke Harris, I want to thank you very much for being with us, former eighth grade charter school teacher in Michigan at Pontiac Academy of Excellence, recently fired from her job after helping her students organize a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s parents.

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