Local activists are coming to the defense of an Orange elementary school teacher who was suspended after she assigned her third-grade class to write letters to a sick inmate convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer.
Marylin Zuniga, a teacher at Forest Street Elementary School, faces possible termination after preliminary inquiries found that she had her pupils write “get well” cards to black nationalist Mumia Abu-Jamal – who is serving life in prison for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer – without seeking the approval of the school or parents.
Zuniga’s supporters claim the principal and district administrators are being unfair to the teacher and that suspension is a harsh punishment for the assignment in question.
Larry Hamm, chairman of the independent People's Organization for Progress, brought up the issue during a discussion on police brutality on Monday at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark while addressing a crowd of 500 people.
"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," he said. "We need to support this young woman...her heart is the right heart."
However, some parents, concerned about an educator’s support for a political prisoner, disagree.
"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.
A teary-eyed Zuniga apologized to offended parents and administrators during an Orange school board meeting on Tuesday.
"Given my record, I do not believe this one episode justifies my termination,” she said. “However, if the board has decided to terminate me, then I am prepared to submit my resignation to avoid the consequences to my career that would follow from termination.”
In a statement provided by Orange Superintendent Ronald Lee to NJ.com, district officials sharply criticized the assignment, saying they "vehemently deny" having prior knowledge of the letters and added Zuniga neither sought approval nor notified parents about this "unauthorized activity."
"The Orange Public Schools was surprised to learn through recent news reports that one of its teachers, Ms. Marilyn Zuniga, a third grade teacher at Forest Street Elementary School, involved her students in a 'get well' letter writing assignment to convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal," the statement reads.
Nyle Fort, a local activist and a close friend of Zuniga's, told NJ.com that the idea to write the letters was suggested by a group of students in her class who were well-aware of Abu-Jamal’s hospitalization.
On the Internet, Zuniga’s defenders have started the hashtag #ISupportMarylin, many of who are pointing out the injustice of her punishment:
#ISupportMarylin because I have a strong suspicion that as a white educator I would not be treated nearly this harshly.— Lena Tansey (@lena_tansey) April 14, 2015
#iSupportMarylin b/c we must end the war on teachers who care about Black & Brown children enough to daily teach them unaltered truth.— Ahmad Greene (@_BrothaG) April 15, 2015
What kind of message does it send to our students when we silence teachers addressing real, relevant issues in society? #ISupportMarylin— Mel Katz (@mel_katzz) April 14, 2015
Compassion for a person's health is not an endorsement of a crime, esp. when guilt contested. #ISupportMarylin— Dmitri Mehlhorn (@DmitriMehlhorn) April 15, 2015