DETROIT – A suburban Detroit teacher who was allegedly fired on March 28th for helping organize an in-school fundraiser for the family of Trayvon Martin has received nationwide support in her quest to get her job back. On Wednesday, Martin’s family thanked her during a press conference following the arrest of George Zimmerman.
“We stand with Brooke Harris, the middle school teacher in Michigan who was fired,” said Rev. Jamal Bryant, who joined Martin’s family during the press conference. On Monday, Harris’s story made national headlines as she went from a seemingly anonymous teacher to another symbol in the Trayvon Martin case. She described the last few days as “crazy.”
WATCH TRAYVON’s FAMILY RECOGNIZE BROOKE HARRIS DURING WEDNESDAY’s PRESS CONFERENCE:
“I’ve gotten maybe four hours of sleep a night, and I love my sleep,” Harris said, “I’ve been getting a ton of support and they’re just helping to reassure me that I did the right thing.”
Harris, 26, did not see the Martin family’s press conference live. She found out about the mention through friends and was both shocked and humbled by it.
“On Monday, I figured I’d be done talking to people about this by Tuesday,” Harris said. “Especially with all the developments in the case, I figured that I’d be old news by now.”
Harris was in her third year teaching seventh and eighth graders at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence, a charter school located 30 minutes north of Detroit. Twice named the school’s “Teacher of the Year,” Harris’s eighth graders came up with an idea for a fundraiser to help Martin’s family on one of the school’s “dress down” days where the would wear hooded sweatshirts and pay $1 each with the proceeds going to Martin’s family.
The school’s principal, Bob Lozelle, signed off on the idea. However, the school’s superintendent, Jacqueline Cassell, vetoed it. When Harris — who had never been disciplined during her time at the school — questioned Cassell’s ruling, she was quickly given a two-day suspension.
When she returned, the suspension was initially extended to two weeks, but Cassell changed her mind and fired Harris shortly thereafter. Being a charter school, PAE does not have to deal with teacher’s unions and can terminate a teacher’s contract at will. Harris’ contract also offered little in terms of due process, making it a very difficult road to get her job back.
Cassell told the Detroit News on Tuesday that she wants the students to be focused on learning, not activism. “In every situation, there are work rules,” Cassell said without elaborating on what rules Harris violated. “When rules are violated, there are consequences.”
The outpouring of support for Harris was almost immediate. When her story “aired on Detroit NBC affiliate WDIV”:http://www.clickondetroit.com/news/Pontiac-Academy-for-Excellence-teacher-says-she-was-fired-over-Trayvon-Martin-fundraiser/
/1719418/10376580//7qdbb8z/-/, teachers from across the country reached out to her in a show of support, and the Southern Poverty Law Center started a petition to try to get her job back at the school. The petition has spread through social media — rapper Talib Kweli is one of thousands who have tweeted the link since Monday — and has garnered nearly 200,000 signatures.
“Random people have been trying to find me from social media,” Harris said. “Whenever I’ve done interviews, people have been very supportive. It’s just coming from a wide variety of people, which has been very reassuring. It’s not just educators, it’s not just liberals, and it’s not just a certain set of people.”
In terms of getting her job back, a rally was held on Tuesday evening at the King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit. Harris spoke to the media, and local pastors and Civil Rights activists vowed to protest at the school next week if Harris is not reinstated. She continues to keep in contact with her students and their parents who have also offered support and rallied on her behalf.
“I heard through a student that one of her friend’s parents has a meeting with the superintendent on Friday about me,” Harris said. “They’ve been writing letters to the superintendent and trying to find ways that they could help me because, unfortunately, (the students) thought this was their fault. I also want to let them know that it’s not their fault. I don’t know what went wrong but don’t you dare think that this was your fault.”
Harris said if she could legally do so without trespassing, she would participate in any rallies on her behalf at the school next week. “If random strangers are willing to be there on my behalf, I have to be there,” she said.
Harris has received no formal job offers from other schools and continues to fight to regain her job in Pontiac. She continues to be driven by the support of her students.
“Yesterday, I got to actually be with a couple of students in person, and I began to understand how much I actually miss them,” Harris said, “I miss them, those specific kids from PAE. It is a good school. Despite the decision that one person made, it’s an amazing school with an amazing staff and amazing students and I just want to get back to them.”
In terms of the Martin family making a point to thank her and her students for their efforts, Harris empathized with the family’s loss and is grateful to them for taking time out to acknowledge her during a very difficult struggle.
“I’m extremely sorry for their loss and the fact that they had to go through all of this,” she said, “Secondly, I just want to say thank you. I don’t have words to express on how they even know my name, let alone were willing to shout me out at the press conference. I want to thank them, but they’re the only ones that matter. If they think that I did the right thing, then I did. It’s just great to know that.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith