Detroit (Free Press) -- A national civil rights group is calling on a Pontiac charter school to reinstate a teacher who said she was fired for helping students organize a fundraiser to benefit the family of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Leadership officials at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence deny the charges, which were made in a news release issued Monday by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Ala.
"Unfortunately, I can't give you more details, but I can say that the reasons that are cited have never been an issue for any termination of any employee at Pontiac Academy for Excellence," Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell said.
Brooke Harris, the fired teacher, said Monday that students in her yearbook class came to her a couple of weeks ago, wanting to organize a fundraiser in which each would pay $1 to veer from the school's dress code to wear hoodies to school. They would be similar to the hoodie Martin was wearing when he was killed Feb. 26 in Sanford, Florida.
Harris said the principal signed off on the fund-raiser, but Cassell said no. Harris said she asked whether students could meet with Cassell to make their case, as they had suggested, and she was suspended for two days.
"I was told I was a bad teacher, that I was being unprofessional, that I'm being paid to teach, not to be an activist. When I tried to defend myself, it was construed as insubordination," Harris said.
Harris came to the school while suspended, which she said was in part to drop off prizes for a literacy fair she helped organize. Harris said her suspension was extended to two weeks, but during a meeting with Cassell, she was fired instead after questioning it.
"I was astonished. I couldn't figure out what I did wrong," Harris said.
Cassell said legal reasons prevent her from discussing the termination, but made it clear she has no problem with the students expressing their views about the Martin case. She said she used to be a member of the SPLC.
"I am a child of the '60s. I lived the civil rights movement. If anybody has a reason to want to be sympathetic, empathetic, the whole nine yards, it would be me," Cassell said. "I certainly would not use this issue as a reason to terminate anybody."
She said she objected to the fundraiser because it wasn't appropriate for the students to wear hoodies in the manner they planned -- with the hoods over their heads.
Cassell, who earlier announced she is stepping down when the current school year is over, said she has worked during the last three years to turn the school into a charter district.
The SPLC has a petition at www.change.org, demanding Harris' reinstatement. A rally for Harris is being held at 6 tonight at the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit.
Harris said she is not sure what her next step is because her contract provides little due process. "I want my job back, but I'm not entirely sure if that's even possible," she said.
Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press
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