New Jersey’s Orange Board of Education fired a first-year language arts and social sciences teacher named Marylin Zuniga on May 13 after lobbying from police union officials angered that Zuniga allowed her students to write letters to jailed black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
On February 5, Zuniga gave her third grade students at Forest Street Elementary in Orange, New Jersey, a writing assignment as a part of Black History Month: “What is the main idea of this quote? — ‘So long as one just person is silenced, there is no justice.’ ”
Later in April, Zuniga mentioned to her students that the man behind the quote, Abu-Jamal, was very ill. Zuniga says that her students asked if they could write get-well cards once all their school work was finished.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is currently serving life in a Pennsylvania prison, and was on death row until 2011, after being convicted for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. A former Black Panther, Abu-Jamal was a journalist throughout the 70s and 80s, but since his incarceration — the result of what supporters call a faulty trial—his case has become a cause célèbre among much of the Left. He has been a prominent voice on matters of crime and punishment, with several books of his writings published, despite apparent attempts by prison and state officials to limit that work. (Abu-Jamal has contributed to In These Times in the past.) He was hospitalized in late March after suffering from what activists describe as untreated diabetes.
“Just dropped off these letters to comrade Johanna Fernandez. My 3rd graders wrote to Mumia to lift up his spirits as he is ill,” Zuniga tweeted on April 5.
Fernandez, a professor at New York City’s Baruch College, delivered the letters to Abu-Jamal. “It had been a long time since we had seen Mumia smile,” Fernandez wrote on her Facebook page, according to NJ.com. “He chuckled as he read excerpts from these touching letters.”
Then, on April 9, Fox News ran a segment on Zuniga’s letters. Richard Costello, the former president of Philadelphia’s police officers union, served as the sole guest during the segment for his take on what Fernandez mentioned in her Facebook post.
“I think the school system needs to immediately fire any teacher involved in this,” Costello told Fox and Friends’ Brian Kilmeade. “And failing that, all the parents who have children in that school system need to reevaluate their further involvement, because these children are now placed in danger by the very people charged with their education.” Police officer associations and unions have long insisted that Abu-Jamal is guilty, and that any defense of him is a defense of a murderer of police.
Zuniga was suspended indefinitely with pay the next day, April 10, after district officials learned about the letters through Fox News’ coverage.
Chris Burgos, president of the New Jersey police officers’ union, applauded the decision that day, but remarked that it was not “enough.” “With these actions, it is clear that Zuniga has lost any benefit of the doubt that she can ever continue to teach our young people, without inserting her anarchy driven agenda going forward,” Burgos said in a letter to district officials.
The next month ‚prominent educators from across the country decried what they say is the interference of police unions in matters of public education.
On April 13, in a statement released with a letter of support signed by an activist organization called Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, famed black intellectual and Princeton Professor Dr. Cornel West called Zuniga’s actions “exemplary.”
“Educators in black and brown communities today are taking a double-hit; first, they are denied funding for quality public schools in their neighborhoods, and then a growing police presence locks down a desperate and dispossessed people,” West says. “Police should not tell us what or whom to teach.”
Another petition in support of Zuniga, signed by educators and scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Marc Lamont Hill, insisted that she be returned to the classroom with supportive mentorship rather than face further discipline.
“The question that lurks in this situation is whether teachers who have taught one perspective of other controversial figures such as Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson faced the same level of scrutiny as Ms. Zuniga,” the petition declares. “Is this a precedent that your school board is truly interested in setting?”
Lois Weiner, a social justice activist and professor of education at New Jersey City University who signed this petition, told In These Times she supports Zuniga because teachers unions need “to go to bat” for families of color on issues that will show that teachers are on their side.
“It’s urgent for us to [support families of color] now because of the re-emergence of a civil rights movement around Black Lives Matter,” Weiner says. “Mumia, and this case with Marilyn, cannot be separated from the growing impatience, frustration, and anger at the way people of color are treated by the police.”
Weiner also notes that the case may have strong implications for teachers that face political pressures. “If the union is not going to fight on cases like this, it’s going to become harder to fight on” other major teacher protection disputes, she says. Zuniga had not yet earned tenure.
According to Zuniga’s legal representative Alan Levine, although the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union that Zuniga is a part of, has privately assured her that they will be meeting with her soon to discuss representing her during the grievance process, the union has not publicly stood with Zuniga in this conflict.
“Generally, the public debate has been dominated by her supporters and the Fraternal Order of Police, and the [teachers] union has not participated in that public debate,” he says.
Levine told In These Times that while discussions regarding legal action against the school district are ongoing and no decision has been made, he has discussed with Zuniga the possibility of a federal civil rights lawsuit that would raise federal and state constitutional claims related to violations of due process in the case of her termination.
“Most of those claims would grow out of the school district’s failure to give her any formal notice of what misconduct she was accused of,” he says, alleging that the school district has neglected requirements to provide a written outline of misconduct to teachers accused. “Publically the school board has talked about the letters her children wrote to Mumia, but they’ve never said that’s the basis of their charges.”
A possible lawsuit, Levine says, would raise the inference that the district made its decision “under pressure from an outside organization that has nothing to do with education but rather has its own narrow political agenda with regards to Mumia.”