NAACP standing behind fired third-grade teacher

IRVINGTON, NJ — Irvington NAACP Vice President Kathleen Witcher is joining Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear and the People’s Organization for Progress in supporting former Forest Street School third-grade teacher Marilyn Zuniga in her ongoing legal battle with her former employers, the Orange School District and the Orange Board of Education.

A first-year teacher, Zuniga was fired last year after she gave her students an assignment to write get-well cards to convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Zuniga’s employment in the district was terminated without public discussion via resolution at the Orange Board of Education meeting on May 13, 2015.

Since then, Zuniga has filed a lawsuit claiming the New Jersey Sunshine Law was violated when the Orange Board of Education voted to fire her without announcing the resolution to do so was on the agenda for that night’s meeting and not giving the public a chance to comment on it. On Monday, March 21, People’s Organization for Progress Chairman Larry Hamm and People’s Organization for Progress Minister of Information Zayid Muhammad issued an urgent press release regarding Abu-Jamal’s health and Zuniga’s ongoing legal battle with the Orange School District.

“The People’s Organization for Progress will join the International Human Rights Community in their outcry over the dangerous medical abuse facing Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is perhaps the world’s most well-known political prisoner,” said Muhammad on Monday, March 21. “Abu-Jamal, still contesting his innocence over the killing of a Philadelphia officer, is enduring the worsening of symptoms as a consequence of his suffering Hepatitis C that prison officials have refused to treat. Last April, Abu-Jamal, now 61, went into diabetic shock and nearly died from a similar ordeal. P.O.P. co-sponsored a rally in Newark with the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and others, protesting the medical neglect. Supporters protested in some 15 cities that same weekend.”

Muhammad said Abu-Jamal recently had his death sentence overturned and was finally given access to family visits and some doctors’ examinations. “It was then that private doctors insisted that he be given the treatment appropriate for Hepatitis C. Prison officials have yet to even accept the treatable but dangerous diagnosis,” said Muhammad.

“We are appalled beyond words to learn that Mumia is still not being properly treated,” said Hamm on Monday, March 21. “Last year’s ordeal was also the background for an Orange teacher, Marilyn Zuniga, coming under fire for having her third-grade students send get-well letters to Abu-Jamal. P.O.P. mobilized community support at the Orange school board in defense of Zuniga in calls to have her reinstated. Zuniga was ultimately terminated by the Orange Board of Education. She is now legally challenging her termination. P.O.P. is actively supporting her legal efforts.”

Witcher, a retired math teacher who worked in the Newark’s public schools, was a former member of the Irvington Board of Education and the Irvington Housing Authority board of directors, and said she supports Zuniga’s fight with the Orange School District and Orange Board of Education for many reasons.

“I don’t think that she did enough to get fired,” said Witcher on Tuesday, March 8.” She might not have placed the exact lesson in enough detail, but that’s happened to all teachers. I think she is going to win her case. I hope she wins her case.”

On Friday, Feb. 12, Superior Court Judge Stephanie A. Mitterhoff ruled Zuniga could continue pursuing her wrongful termination lawsuit against the Orange School District, her former employer.On Thursday, March 3, Zuniga came out to the People’s Organization for Progress meeting to discuss her Sunshine Law case.

Zuniga said attorney Alan Levine is the “main lawyer representing my independent legal team for the Sunshine Law case and potential federal lawsuit.” She also said she is being represented by lawyers from the New Jersey Education Association and Rutgers University in other legal matters related to her job termination last year.

“The last time I was here, I told you that the Orange public schools and Orange Board of Education had appealed my unemployment,” said Zuniga on Thursday, March 3. “That’s ridiculous. It has nothing to do with them. I filed a grievance. The NJEA has been representing me in that. We have to go through the process of arbitration. If it’s successful, then we will pursue a federal case.”

East Orange resident Tom Puryear, the president of the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP and the chairman of the state NAACP’s Education Committee, was there at the Orange Board of Education meetings when Zuniga’s case was first tabled.

“The community came out and made a strong voice about how they feel about what they feel the teacher is doing in the school district,” said Puryear on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at the board’s first meeting where Zuniga’s case was discussed. “Nobody said she was a bad teacher. If anything, America is a country of second chances and, even if she made a mistake — and I don’t believe that she made a mistake — it seems to me that she should be given the opportunity to redeem herself, if necessary, and proceed. As someone said: We all make mistakes.”

Witcher was not at the People’s Organization for Progress meeting on Thursday, March 3, when Zuniga spoke, but she said she’s already heard her speak in the past.

“I’m happy to have heard Miss Zuniga speak in August, last year, at the Occupy Newark program,” said Witcher on Tuesday, March 8. “I’ve written to the Orange superintendent of schools, because I know him personally, hoping that her termination could be overturned. Mr. (Ron) Lee never responded to me and I was surprised by that. I’m going to see him again. But he didn’t respond to that. I haven’t heard back from him yet. I thought that our children’s education and rights had been eroded. Mumia was never found to have been on the scene of anything when it comes to the murder of that Philadelphia police officer. It is suspected that his brother might actually be the culprit.”

Witcher said she’s also standing with Zuniga, People’s Organization for Progress and the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP on Constitutional grounds. She described herself as a free speech advocate who believes in all the rights and freedoms the U.S. Constitution guarantees to all U.S. citizens and the separation of powers and spheres of influence it lays out for government and bureaucracies of all sorts, such as boards of education, and paramilitary organizations, such as police and law enforcement.

Witcher said Zuniga was fired from her job after state and national Fraternal Order of Police unions found out about the get-well letters her students wrote to Abu-Jamal and formally protested. She said police and law enforcement should not be dictating what is taught in American classrooms or allowed to exert undue influence on public school districts and educators.

“Pressure applied from the major unions, including the F.O.P., has resulted in wrongful terminations of employment and other infringements on freedom of speech and individual and groups rights,” said Witcher on Tuesday, March 8. “Our own Rev. William Rutherford, here in Irvington, spoke up for Reggie Colbert, along with Larry Hamm and P.O.P. and, when Rev. Rutherford spoke up, they accused him of slandering the police. To have called Miss Zuniga to task, when I see her as an alert and bright person who should have a bright future, it doesn’t sit well with me, because I can remember, as a child, when my father was harassed by the Newark police. I never forgot it, because he was the victim. I think I was about 8 or 9 years old. I hope that doesn’t happen to Miss Zuniga’s students.”