Teacher Says She Was Fired For Teaching Students About The Central Park Five

CREDIT: Frank Franklin II, AP

Raymond Santana, right, Kevin Richardson, and Yusef Salaam, left, react to supporters Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, in New York. The three men who were exonerated in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case.

A New York City high school teacher says she was fired after teaching her class about the Central Park Five — a case involving five black and Hispanic men who were accused of raping a jogger as teenagers but later exonerated after spending between six to 13 years in prison — because administrators were worried the lesson would “rile up” students of color.

The English teacher, Jeena Lee Walker, told the New York Daily News that administrators at her former high school critiqued the 2013 lesson, saying it should have been more “balanced.” Court papers show administrators said they feared the lesson would cause “riots.” And according to Lee-Walker, administrators were afraid the lesson would “rile up” the black students in her class.

Jeena Lee-Walker

Jeena Lee-Walker

CREDIT: Courtesy of Jeena Lee-Walker

In her interview with the Daily News, Lee-Walker said she thought “students in general, and black students in particular, should be riled up” about the case, which is often held up as an example of how the criminal justice system unfairly targets young men of color. But she subsequently received bad performance reviews and eventually received a dismissal.

Lee-Walker has since filed suit against the Department of Education and school administrators for failing to give her 60 days notice about her termination, which violates the teacher’s union contract.

The story has attracted a lot of attention from educators — and especially from teachers who are concerned about teacher diversity and who say this type of action from administrators may hobble teachers of color professionally. Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and the author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education, sent several tweets criticizing the administrators for their comments.

When it comes to broaching issues of racial justice in the classroom, teachers say they have to be thoughtful about how to discuss these topics without causing controversy among parents and administrators.

For instance, teachers say they encounter many obstacles when they try to teach American history in a way that properly acknowledges and accurately describes the slave trade, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, atrocities committed against Native Americans, and arts and culture that doesn’t revolve around what white people were doing at the time. And because standardized tests often require teachers to stick to a set of particular historical figures and dates, they often lack the freedom to talk about subjects that typically don’t get as much coverage, such as the accomplishments of black civil rights leaders as opposed to highlighting what white political figures did to advance civil rights.

Michael Williams, who teaches global studies and American history for high school juniors in West Columbia, SC, told ThinkProgress last year that he often struggles with teaching within these limitations, as well as teaching in a more politically conservative area.

“It’s a little difficult, because politically, there is some backlash that can come from that and I work in a more suburban neighborhood. So that puts on a little pressure, as well as what comes from the state government and the fact that there is a limit on the kind of things you have time to focus on,” Williams said. “You don’t necessarily look at these great achievements. It’s more like ‘Oh, LBJ comes in with the Civil Rights Act,’ and you lose the little bit of what African Americans did during that time by bringing in these white presidents and other people as those who came in as the knight in shining armor and fixed things.”

Thanks to social media, it has become easier for parents to call out these issues in history classes. Last October, for example, one Houston mother’s Facebook post about her son’s McGraw-Hill textbook, which incorrectly referred to slaves as “workers” and included slaves in a section on “Patterns of Immigration,” went viral. The textbook manufacturer eventually printed new textbooks and offered the new edition to schools across the country.

Educators and education journalists also brought attention to “Playing History: Slave Trade” — a video game that was sold as an educational resources about slavery, but that actually allowed players to stack slaves on top of each other like Tetris. Screenshots of the video game were retweeted many times on Twitter, and the criticism eventually led the CEO of the company that made the video game to address the controversy.

Still, there has been substantial backlash from conservatives who want to present U.S. history with fewer references to the civil rights movement, discrimination, slavery, and violence against Native Americans. After the College Board changed its AP history standards to include more information on slavery and Native Americans, the RNC said the standards “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects” and advocated for Congress to stop funding the College Board. Conservative legislators began pushing legislation to prohibit spending on AP U.S. history courses, and eventually the College Board caved to the pressure — agreeing to add specific mentions of the Founding Fathers and use the term “American exceptionalism.”