ORANGE, NJ — Former first-year Forest Street School third-grade teacher Marylin Zuniga, who was fired from her job in the Orange Public School District for having her students write get-well cards to convicted cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal, is scheduled to speak to the members of the People’s Organization for Progress on Thursday, March 3, at the activist group’s regularly scheduled meeting at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark.
“On Thursday, March 3, educator Marylin Zuniga returns to address the status and details of her new rounds of legal challenges surrounding her abrupt termination last year over her students sending get-well cards to a dangerously ill Mumia Abu Jamal, who is arguably now the world’s best known political prisoner,” said Zayid Muhammad of the People’s Organization for Progress on Tuesday, March 1. “Zuniga was terminated last May without being given a public hearing, in spite of receiving an outpouring of support, locally and nationally. Two public board meetings were packed with supporters standing with the Ivy League-educated elementary teacher, since her initial April suspension. To the surprise of many, she was terminated only after the second of those meetings on May 13.”
Muhammad said Zuniga is seeking to have her termination voided because she was wrongly dismissed without a hearing, among other issues. People’s Organization for Progress Chairman Larry Hamm said standing with Zuniga and supporting her in a fight to regain her job after she was fired for making a “rookie mistake” is the right thing to do.
On Friday, Feb. 12, Superior Court Judge Stephanie A. Mitterhoff ruled Zuniga can continue pursuing her wrongful termination lawsuit against the Orange Public School District, her former employer.
“I was elated at the judge’s ruling in that regard,” Hamm said Tuesday, Feb. 16. “The school district was trying to have her suit dismissed and I think the judge rightly pointed out that she is within her constitutional rights to bring a lawsuit and she has grounds. The People’s Organization for Progress has supported Marilyn Zuniga from the beginning. We support her now and we will continue to support her throughout this ordeal and throughout this legal fight.”
Hamm and the People’s Organization for Progress have championed Zuniga’s case from the start. They came to the Tuesday, April 14, Orange Board of Education meeting and helped convince the board to table the motion to decide her case until the subsequent meeting on May 12. They even had a teach-in on Wednesday, May 6, at International Faith Ministries on Main Street in Orange to educate the general public about the case and try to galvanize community support for her.
But that proved to no avail; the Orange Board of Education decided by resolution to formally terminate Zuniga on Tuesday, May 12. After she was terminated, Zuniga hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming Orange school board members violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act when they voted to terminate her employment. She alleges that school board members discussed her case in a private session before they came to the May 12 meeting, and voted to fire her without a public discussion or debate.
According to court papers on file in the Essex County Hall of Records in downtown Newark, Zuniga is asking the court to force the board to discuss the matter in public session. The Orange Public School District is being represented by the law firm of Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, which said there was never any private discussion among the board members about Zuniga’s case before she was fired in 2015.
According to published reports, attorney Ronald Hunt admitted for the record that a private discussion between Superintendent of Orange Public Schools Ron Lee, the board attorney at the time, Zuniga, and her representatives did take place prior to the public board meeting at which she was fired. But he said none of the board members who voted that night were present during the meeting that took place earlier that night.
On Friday, Feb. 12, Mitterhoff ruled Zuniga has grounds to move ahead with her lawsuit. Hamm and the People’s Organization for Progress said they are glad the third-grade teacher will have her day in court.
Attempts to obtain comments from Orange Public School District officials regarding the Zuniga case were unsuccessful as the Record-Transcript went to press this week. Calls to Zuniga’s legal team for comment were also not returned by press time this week.