One Manhattan high school has made clear not all lessons are worth learning, particularly those that highlight the fallacies of the criminal justice system.
According to New York Daily News, Jeena Lee-Walker filed suit against the Department of Education and school administrators on Friday for being fired for teaching her students about the Central Park Five as an English teacher at the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry.
“I kind of wanted to hook them in, engage them, win them over,” she told the Daily News. “I though that this material was not only engaging but important.”
In 1989, five black teens were coerced into giving incriminating testimony in the brutal beating and rape of a female jogger in Central Park. At a moment when the country, and New York City itself, was seeking to be tougher on crime, the situation served as evidence for increased policing, and fumed existing racial tensions. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump went so far as to take out a full-page ad with the Daily News calling the kids “criminals” and “crazed misfits,” evoking sensational stereotypes he continues to use today in his fight for the presidency.
It would not be until December 2002 that new evidence, including DNA, would be used to show their innocence. The five were exonerated and agreed to settle a civil suit against New York City in June 2014 for $40 million.
The story marks a case in which justice is not blind, particularly along the color line. But when Lee-Walker introduced the case into her lesson plan in 2013, the administration was more concerned about getting black students “riled up” than the invaluable example it showed about the world black kids their age live in. She claims she was told to offer a more “balanced” understanding of the circumstances.
“I was stunned,” she said to the Daily News. “I was kind of like, the fact are the facts. This is what happened. These boys went to jail and lost 14, 18 years of their lives. How can you say that in a more balanced way?”
Lee-Walker would go on to have a number of exchanges with supervisors, only to then begin receiving bad performance reviews in the 18 months that followed, including being cited for insubordination, and fired this past May. In the suit, she claims the school violated her First Amendment rights.
We shall see what happens of the case. But what remains is a lesson that free speech is inextricably linked to our right have the space thinking freely, engaging with transparently with facts of the world around us. By compromising one in classroom, you compromise the other, and, in effect, undermine the integrity of genuine pedagogy.
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