Pontiac teacher, Brooke Harris, fired for helping 8th graders to raise money for the family of Trayvon Martin

The firing of Pontiac charter school teacher, Brooke Harris, is making the national news. As you may have heard, she was fired last week, after working with her students to establish a fundraiser for the family of Trayvon Martin. The following comes by way of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

What do you do with a teacher who provides students with authentic learning opportunities? A teacher who invests her own resources to support students? A teacher who was voted Teacher of the Year two of the last three years?

If you’re Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School in Pontiac, Mich., you fire her…

Last month Brooke Harris’ eighth-grade class asked her about the “kid who was killed over some skittles;” she seized the opportunity to bring her students’ lived experiences into the classroom—a strategy we and other experts advocate.

Brooke’s students identify with Trayvon Martin. Many of them are African American. Many have been stopped by police who thought they looked suspicious.

In fact, her students engaged so deeply with the issue that they asked to take it beyond essays and class discussions—they wanted to take action to help Trayvon’s family.

They, like many students across the nation, wanted to show their support by wearing hoodies. Each student who participated would pay $1. Proceeds would be donated to Trayvon’s family.

Again, Brooke saw a teachable moment. She and her students began the formal process of organizing a school event. Students wrote persuasive letters to the principal and superintendent. Brooke and a co-worker filed the necessary paperwork. The principal immediately signed off on the fundraiser.

Superintendent Cassell was less enthusiastic. She refused to approve the proposal, despite having supported many other “dress down” fundraisers. Brooke’s students took the disappointment in stride, but asked to present their idea to Cassell in person.

And that’s when things got weird.

Brooke asked that a few of her students be allowed to attend her meeting with Cassell. Outraged by the request, Cassell suspended Brooke for two days. The explanation given—she was being paid to teach, not to be an activist.

Those two days morphed into a two-week, unpaid suspension when Brooke briefly stopped by the afterschool literacy fair (she had previously organized) to drop off prizes (paid for with her own money) and to pick up materials for several students whose parents were unable to attend. Supporting her students was insubordination.

The final offense? Brooke asked Cassell to clarify her original transgression so she could learn from her mistake. Cassell referred her to the minutes of their first meeting. Still confused, Brooke again requested an explanation. Cassell fired her.

The Pontiac Academy for Excellence is a nonunionized charter school. According to Superintendent Cassell, Brooke’s contract makes no provisions for formal appeal, and Michigan is an “at will” employment state. What does this mean to Brooke? She has no right to an explanation of why she was fired. She just was…

Personally, I’m torn on this. I’d like to come out 100% on the side of Harris, but, truth is, I’m not sure that students should be encouraged to raise money for private individuals involved in cases such as this. While, in this instance, I happen to agree wholeheartedly with the cause, it’s not too hard to imagine that there might be other instances where I’d be less than enthusiastic. For example, I was just reading that Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, has launched a website for the purposes of raising money. So, I’ve got to imagine there’s another teacher out there somewhere, thinking that maybe it would be a good thing to organize a bake sale, or a car wash, on his behalf. And I can’t imagine that I’d be OK with that… So, what do you think? Am I way off on this? I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

Oh, and, if nothing else, this is just another reminder of how fucked up it is to live in an “at will” state, where you can be fired for anything, without explanation. That, I think, is the real crime here. Regardless of whether or not she was wrong to help arrange the fundraiser, I suspect that most of us would agree that it shouldn’t be a fireable offense, right?

[note: The online petition to have Harris reinstated now has over 70,000 signatures. If you’re so inclined, you can add your name here.]

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  1. Posted April 10, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I should add that I’m totally in support of this teacher’s choice to take a subject that her students were passionate about, and channel that energy into a positive, constructive activity. That’s what good teachers do. I, however, think, in this instance, a line might have been crossed when it was suggested that money be raised and given to the family members of one party in a killing which we, as a nation, are still trying to get to the bottom of. I think that essays on so-called “stand your ground” laws, or racial profiling might have been the better way to go… Or, I would have just suggested that the kids take up an unofficial collection on their own… Sooner or later, kids need to learn that sometimes you have to work outside the system.

  2. King Sorcerer
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Firing a teacher with a record as impressive as hers may be a stretch. But taking sides on a political or highly contested social issue is absolutely not acceptable practice for public educators. Disciplinary action was certainly required, but perhaps they could have gotten the point across without losing such an obviously gifted teacher.

  3. Edward
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    He’s changed it since, but an earlier version of Zimmerman’s web page included a photo of the pro-Zimmerman graffiti that was spray painted on the side of an African American studies building at Ohio State.

    As for Harris, who probably makes near poverty wages in a shitty charter school work environment because she loves to teach, I’m not surprised at all to hear that she was terminated. Being a teacher is like working at McDonalds. It’s no longer a professional career. You read a script, and, when you deviate from it, your fired.

    I’m depressed today.

  4. Greg Pratt
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Remind me what “line” might have been crossed?

  5. Edward
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Greg, while I think that Martin was murdered, and I applaud the efforts of these students to get involved and support his family, I don’t feel as though this should have been a school-sanctioned event. The case is still open, and the facts are still coming in. Like Mark, I think that there might have been other ways for this teacher to engage with her students on the subject without raising money for Martin’s family through official means. I would have been fine with the teacher encouraging students to plan a fundraising concert for Martin’s family on a weekend, for instance, or something along those lines.

    Also, if I can ask you a question, what would you think if this story had been about a teacher raising money for Zimmerman?

  6. Greg Pratt
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Raising money for a family that has suffered loss. This is done all the time across public and private institutions.

    The way the story is told, as far as the accounts I have read, the STUDENTS wanted to raise money and support the family. Harris was helping them have their voices heard with the superintendent of the school. This is helping students to see that they can have influence and power by taking action and getting involved.

    The way you write your question at the end of your comment assumes a zero sum game here. In other words, if Martin’s family gains something then Zimmerman loses something and we want to make sure everyone is being treated fairly. The question I have for you and Mark is this: What does Zimmerman lose by students raising money and supporting the family of the the 17 year old boy he killed?

  7. Posted April 11, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I agree that schools are not an appropriate place to raise money for hot button political issues.

    However, I don’t think that Harris should have been fired.

  8. Posted April 11, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    It would be one thing if Ms. Harris had enlisted the students in supporting a cause they were indifferent to, or had stood in the way of students supporting other causes because she did not share their views. Had she done those things, the lesson would have been about the promotion of her own ideology. It seems, though, that the lesson she actually taught was one about how to be an engaged citizen in a democracy — a lesson which would be just as useful to students whose politics differed from hers.

    In contrast to this, the superintendent has taught a very different lesson. Cassel has taught Ms. Harris’ students that they aren’t allowed to be engaged and active citizens, at least not if they want to make a living.

  9. Mr. X
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I believe Mark was saying that, while he personally agreed with what she did, and applauds her use of an issue that these kids cared about in order to get them more interested in participating as citizens of these United States, he would have urged them to raise money outside the school, thus skirting the rules, and the appearance of impropriety. I don’t think that’s such as extreme suggestion.

    And I very much like your comment, Dr. Eats Babies, about the lesson that Cassel has taught these students. My hope is that this radicalizes them.

  10. Posted April 11, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    From my read of the article, the students were the brains behind this, and the teacher helping them figure out how to do it properly — am I misunderstanding, was the fundraiser the teacher’s idea?

    If the students wanted to hold a fundraiser for the family of a kid who was hit by a car, would that be okay? If they wanted to hold a fundraiser for a family whose home was destroyed by fire or tornado, would that be okay? If George Zimmerman is convicted and goes to prison, let’s assume for the sake of argument that he had a couple of small children — if a classroom wanted to hold a fundraiser for the kids whose dad is in prison, would that be okay, or are you going to hold them to a “sins of the father” standard?

    Also, why is it the money that makes this wrong? If the students were to organize their symbolic hoodie day without contributing a dollar each, would that be okay? (And, if collective action is so cheap that $1 is more meaningful, does that mean that all future Occupy Ypsi events will just be “click here to donate $1 by paypal!” buttons on the web?) On the flipside, if a high school civics class wanted to hold an “Presumption of Innocence Day of Awareness” focused on the rights provided Zimmerman by constitution and case law, would you see that as being okay or not okay based on whether the students also each donated $1 to his legal defense?

    In short, “I disagree”. I don’t think that the school should be a venue of rightthink, either in the sense of enforcing some sanitized faux objectivity nor in the sense of picking and choosing which side of an issue is “proper”. Rather, the teacher and the school should be engaging the students in the issues they (the students) bring up, and helping them to explore all sides of the issue in the course of that engagement, but not forcing the students to limit themselves to “safe” issues.

    But, yes, I will agree with your other point, that the teacher should not have been fired, when it appears she was attempting to follow “proper” procedure.

  11. Posted April 11, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    If the students initiated it, Ms. Harris was right to encourage them. Kids should be encouraged to get involved in political issues.

  12. John Galt
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    It’s a slippery slope. If the Superintendent had let her get away with this, before you knew it, she would have been collecting food for the poor.

  13. Mike Shecket
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    She worked for a charter school and wasn’t in a union, correct? Wouldn’t the rules have been different if she worked for Pontiac’s regular public school district and was in the MEA and the local teachers’ union?

  14. TeacherPatti
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Mike, yup. Most (if not all) charter schools are not unionized. If she had been at a public school, she would have been entitled to due process before being fired. (Remember, tenure and most of our fancy union protections really are all about that–due process, which EVERYONE should be entitled to, but that’s another post). In other words, she would have had a right to be heard, have a union rep with her and such before being fired.

    Edward is correct, too, about the wages at charter schools sucking ass (although he said it much nicer than that). I’d like to hear from a charter teacher…what is the salary range? I have heard that they start at $30k and max out at $40k, no pensions, and you pay for most of your own health insurance, but I have no way of confirming that and I’m sure there is some difference.

  15. K2
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Brooke Harris kicked ass on CNN last night.


  16. Joseph chavis
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Jacqueline Cassel is being less than candid for why she fired Brooke Harris. She said she is a child of the civil rights movement. Clarence Thomas was a child of the civil rights movement also. They must be from the same neighborhood. This is simular to an incident at Saint Augustine College in Raleigh, NC. The history club put up a display of Emmit Till and two students protested saying that dont happen anymore. They were forced to take the display down. They then put up a display of a blackman being dragged down the road in Texas by a pickup truck. They had to transfer from Saint Augustine College, an HBCU run by children of the civil rights movement. They never grew up and they still on plantation serving massa.

  17. Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I really do not buy this “keep political issues out of the classroom” stuff. Should we keep evolution and climate change out of biology and physical science, because they’re political controversies? It’s like saying “let’s leave our agendas at the door and just get it done,” as if agendas are automatically cynical and self-serving, instead of having everything to do with your values and the only reason you’d try to accomplish something in the first place.

    If there’s another teacher out there trying to raise money for George Zimmerman, that teacher is wrong and ought to be reprimanded, because Zimmerman likely committed a hate crime/murder, and regardless has come to be a symbol for the white power movement. The actual reality of who’s right and wrong is what matters. All opinions are not created equal and the truth takes sides. Classrooms are not some kind of neutral PC vacuum in which no facts are ever taught.

    Furthermore, (a) it was Harris’ students idea and (b) they wanted to raise money for Trayvon’s family. There’s absolutely nothing controversial about the idea that the Martins have suffered a tragedy and could use support. But my main point is that if Harris had started it and it had been to raise money for the SPLC or something, it would still be completely right.

  18. LAKE
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    As much as I respect that this teacher was trying to support the students’ curiosity for what the processes are that can create social and political change, she seems to have taken it too far. Here’s why I think so: her personal political opinion was obvious to students whose parents may have a different opinion. That’s why we keep god and politics out of public schools.

    Maybe all the parents share the same opinion, but as with all politics, people don’t want political opinions contrary to their own, to be professed to their children by teachers while they’re at work–whatever they may be about. If I had a kid and a teacher was doing this or was siding with intelligent design, for example, I would want that teacher to stop, and if they didn’t after two warnings, I’d say they should be fired on the third.

    Harris had two chances to keep her job after being told to halt it with the politics. Her continual questioning comes off as and attempt to undermine her supervisors duties to keep politics out of the classroom. She thinks she’s so right that she is justified in breaking this rule, but really, she’s being overly righteous in the classroom, and she was warned. Outside of the classroom, she can do and say whatever she wants within her legal rights, but this is an American public school, and in American public schools, we leave god and politics out of the classroom.

  19. LAKE
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    What’s weird to me about the CNN video someone has posted a link to above, is that the guy in the other talk-box, who is probably someone from the school’s administration, isn’t heard because of where the video cuts off. After searching CNN.com for the rest of the video when using the search term “Brooke Harris,” the rest of the video is not accessible. This shows, to my astonishment, that CNN has no regard for retaining the other side of this story. I’m shocked. I didn’t think CNN was like that. I just wanted to hear what the school had to say in defense. My opinion is mine to form, but I want both sides no matter what.

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