A little justice please?
Early this month, I wrote two pieces about Brooke Harris, a teacher fired first from a Flint charter school for helping students to organize a fundraiser for the family of Trayvon Martin and more recently fired by the Education Achievement Authority (HERE and HERE.)
At Brooke’s per-termination hearing, she learned that she was being accused of helping students organize a walkout in protest of having to go to school all year long. It’s an odd charge. Why? Because, at the time, Brooke was over five hundred miles away in New York City at a conference.
Which, of course, makes all of this look a whole lot like she’s being punished for speaking out about the poor education EAA students are receiving and the inferior conditions in which they are being taught.
Now the ACLU has taken up the charge. Today, they sent a six-page letter (pdf) to EAA Chief of Staff Tyrone E. Winfrey and EAA Chancellor Dr. John Covington. In the letter, they outline the absurdity of the accusations against Brooke, the shoddy investigation that was undertaken to “prove” she had a direct role in the organizing of the walkout, and request that she be reinstated.
Here’s part of the letter:
Dear Hearing Officer Winfrey and EAA Chancellor Covington:
The ACLU of Michigan submits this letter in support of Ms. Brooke Harris to supplement the information presented at Ms. Harris’s pre-termination hearing on July 15, 2013. We have serious concerns that Ms. Harris has been, and continues to be, unconstitutionally retaliated against for speaking out on a matter of public concern, namely at schools managed by the Education Achievement Authority (“EAA”).
Based on information provided to us, the allegation levied against Ms. Harris is that she “directly encouraged” a student walkout on June 13, 2013 at Mumford High School in Detroit is unsubstantiated. On June 13, Ms. Harris was over five hundred miles from Detroit at a conference in New York City. It appears however, that Mumford principal K.C. Wilbourn immediately blamed Ms. Harris for the walkout and forced Ms. Harris to go on leave that same day, without even asking her if she was involved. From our reports, EAA Investigator Urrond Williams then conducted an investigation of the incident that neglected to include any questioning of the student who walked out about their motivation for leaving school. Instead, both Principal Wilbourn and Investigator Williams used second and third-hand hearsay information from students who did not participate in the walkout to reach their conclusion that Ms. Harris was responsible. The aforementioned actions, combined with Investigator Williams’s decision to selectively present, and turn over, only those student statements that cast suspicion on Ms. Harris, despite obtaining more statements, suggests that the walkout investigation was not conducted in good faith, and aimed from the outset at implicating Ms. Harris.
Such an unreasonable investigatory process shortly after Ms. Harris’s public criticism of the EAA during the EAA Board meeting on May 9, 2013, is strong evidence that both the investigation of Ms. Harris and resulting pre-termination hearing are unlawful retaliation against Ms. Harris for exercising her First Amendment rights. Unless there is credible, firsthand knowledge of Ms. Harris’s involvement in the walkout of which we are unaware, we ask that you find the allegations against Ms. Harris to be unsubstantiated and recommend her immediate reinstatement.
It’s worth noting that none of the kids who walked out were actually in Brooke’s classes or of a group called the Social Justice League that she was the faculty advisor for. Still, she was immediately blamed and put on leave, even though she was in New York City at the time of the incident.
Here are the demands the ACLU is making:
Ms. Harris has accepted a teaching position at another school for the 2013-2014 school year. Nonetheless, Ms. Harris would like to fulfill the terms of her existing employment contract and resume her teaching duties at Mumford for the remainder of the current school year. Because the investigation of the student walkout that occurred on June 13, 2013 was unreasonable and failed to yield any credible evidence of Ms. Harris’s involvement, we ask that you take the following steps:
- Issue a finding that Ms. Harris was not involved in the June 13, 2013 walkout.
- Immediately reinstate Ms. Harris reinstatement, compensate her at the rate of her regular salary of $250 per school day.
- Because Ms. Harris was placed on ten days of paid leave on June 13, 2013 and has not yet received full compensation for those days, pay the outstanding balance of $875.
- Remove any negative information pertaining to the June 13,2013 incident from Ms. Harris’s personnel file.
I contacted the ACLU and, as of now, a lawsuit has not been filed. Unfortunately, they were unaware of Brooke’s situation until after the hearing. They are getting involved now because they believe that there is a “serious First Amendment issue at risk” and they are hopeful that this can be resolved amicably without court intervention. That being said, should the EAA administrators fail to do the right thing, “all options are on the table” and a lawsuit may be filed by the ACLU on behalf of Brooke.