PONTIAC, Mich. – A suburban Detroit teacher’s eighth grade class wanted to do something to help Trayvon Martin’s family and came up with a creative fundraiser. That effort, the teacher says, led to her suspension and subsequent firing that has led to a national call to have here reinstated.
Brooke Harris, 26, was in her third year teaching seventh and eighth graders at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence, which is located 30 minutes north of Detroit. Pontiac Academy is a charter school — whose teachers are non-union and can be fired at will — and is the only high-performing school in the struggling district.
WATCH BROOKE HARRIS SPEAK ON HER BEING FIRED BELOW:
“One of the main things that I don’t want to get lost is that I still think it is a great school,” Harris said in an exclusive interview with TheGrio. “I still want my job back. It’s got a great administration based on ability and it has a great staff that’s really dedicated to the kids.”
“The kids clearly are amazing. They are very bright and very intelligent and very aware of the things that actually matter outside of their textbooks.”
The school’s population mirrors that of Pontiac: largely black and Latino. Pontiac is one of the poorest cities in Michigan and suffers from the same issues of crime and violence as nearby Detroit and Flint. The students receive free lunches through the federal government free lunch program.
Harris, who was twice named the school’s “Teacher of the Year” and had no previous infractions at the school, overheard two of her students talking about Trayvon Martin and helped them come up with an idea to do something to help.
“It was the students’ idea,” said Harris, who holds a degree in English from the University of Michigan. “It was my first hour class, which is Yearbook, and they were working on sections about basketball and English class when in passing a couple of the boys were talking about Trayvon Martin, or as they put it, ‘the boy who was shot over some Skittles’ and they were going back and forth having a really good conversation.
“Since it was a Journalism class, I thought they should write an editorial about it. I gave them basic facts and played the 911 tapes. They watched videos about that. I didn’t tell them my opinion, they simply wrote editorials about their opinion.”
Harris said that most of the students were very affected by Trayvon’s death, with some even crying about it after hearing the 911 tapes, and some wrote of their fears about the shooting, including walking to the corner store. After reading their editorials and having conversations with the students about their feelings, they decided to do something more.
“We’re a uniformed school,” Harris said, “Once a month we have ‘dress-down’ days where kids pay $1 and get to wear their jeans and sneakers and whatever they want. Usually, that money goes toward the school, either toward athletics or something like that, but instead of the money going toward the school, they wanted to donate it to the family. So the kids could ‘dress down’ and wear a hoodie on the last day before Spring Break.”
This was not meant as a form of protest. The students were not going to wear the hoods over their heads, walk out of class, or cause a disruption. Harris ran the idea past a co-worker and filled out the requisite paperwork for the fundraiser; it was cleared by the schools principal to take place on March 28. However, the superintendent, Jacqueline Cassell, disapproved of the idea and called Harris into her office on March 26, two days before the fundraiser. According to Harris, Cassell told her that she had concerns about the children’s safety. Harris countered that the children often wore hoodies on “dress down” days and that the building is very cold, especially this time of year.
“They wear hoodies all the time,” Harris said, “The building is very cold. A lot of them wear hoodies over their uniforms for warmth, and nearly all of them wear them instead of coats this time of year when they walk to school.”
Harris says that she was “berated” by Cassell during their meeting. She was also told that she was “a teacher and not an activist.” When she attempted to defend herself and her students, she was given a two-day suspension for insubordination.
“The reason I was upset by this was because she seemed to think that (the fundraiser) wasn’t the kids’ idea,” Harris said, “She thought that they just wanted to wear hoodies and were exploiting [the Trayvon Martin case] for that purpose.”
“She even came to my class during the days that I was suspended to talk to my eighth graders and basically told them that they only need to fundraise for the school, you don’t need to be wearing hoodies, and you’re only trying to wear hoodies and get away with it. I was upset that she was pretty much taking them for granted.”
Cassell has kept largely quiet about the matter, and was unable to be reached for comment by theGrio. She did tell the Detroit Free Press on Monday that no one has been fired for something such as this before.
“I am a child of the ‘60s,” Cassell said to the Free Press. “I lived the civil rights movement. If anybody has a reason to want to be sympathetic, empathetic, the whole nine yards, it would be me. I certainly would not use this issue as a reason to terminate anybody.”
Cassell, who is black, claimed that the fundraiser was inappropriate because the students planned to wear the hoods over their heads — a point that Harris disputes. Cassell reiterated her claim that she was concerned for the students’ safety because they could become targets of law enforcement or gangs.
Harris came back after her two-day suspension for a follow-up meeting on March 29. Her suspension was then extended another two weeks without pay. Before Harris could ask why the suspension was extended, she was fired and she insists that she has yet to be formally given a reason for her termination.
“I was over the hoodie idea,” Harris said, ”(The kids) wanted to sell Skittles, they wanted to do a YouTube video, they had a ton of ideas. That’s why I’m confused right now. We had moved on, and she was the one who called me into her office to berate me about how I was a bad teacher.”
Harris’ firing coincidentally came the same day that a group of seniors at Frederick Douglass Academy in Detroit walked out in an organized protest against the lack of education that they were receiving. Those students were subsequently suspended.
Harris, whose contract provides little in the way of due process, is not looking to file any legal action at this time. She is only lobbying for her reinstatement. She has gotten some help from an outside source as The Southern Poverty Law Center started a petition to get Harris reinstated on Monday.
She has also maintained contact with her students and gotten support from them as well as some of her former co-workers. She has also encountered some angry backlash.
“My co-workers have been secretly supportive of me,” Harris said, “Of course no one wants to say anything out loud because they don’t want to be in the unemployment line next. From other educators, I feel like I’m getting a lot of positive support.
“From the other side, from those who are not involved in education, I’m getting a lot of negative backlash. People were saying that I was indoctrinating them with my beliefs, and that I should’ve looked at both sides of the case. Basically, telling me what I should’ve done, but you weren’t in my classroom to see it.”
Harris also referenced the racist comments made about her after “she appeared on NBC affiliate WDIV”:http://www.clickondetroit.com/news/Pontiac-Academy-for-Excellence-teacher-says-she-was-fired-over-Trayvon-Martin-fundraiser/
/1719418/10376580//7qdbb8z/-/ and acknowledged that it has hurt her personally. Still, despite the animosity, she only wants to get her job back and go back to teaching her class.
Cassell is set to retire at the end of the school year, and Harris said she would be willing to put any ill will aside for the final weeks of the year if she were brought back. She just wants to teach her kids.
“We shouldn’t be silencing our youth,” Harris said, “If you would allow the kids an opportunity to have their own voice, their own opinion, and the ability to stand up for what they think is right, then they should do it. Whether it’s in your classroom, whether it’s an entire school, or whatever it is, our children deserve to be heard.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith