Marylin Zuniga, a New Jersey teacher at Forest Street School, was recently suspended for allowing her third grade students to write get well cards to Mumia Abu-Jamal. A previous member of the Black Panther Party, Mumia is serving a life sentence in prison for the murder of a police officer back in 1981. Originally, he was given the death penalty, but it was downgraded after multiple appeals. Last month, complications from diabetes led to Mumia’s hospitalization. While it may initially seem outrageous that a teacher would let her students reach out to a convicted murderer, she had good reason to.
In February, Zuniga introduced a quote from Mumia to her students and asked them to reflect on it: “So long as one just person is silenced, there is no justice.” This month, she mentioned in passing that Mumia was sick and her students enthusiastically asked to write him get-well cards. When they were done, Zuniga dropped them off with one of Mumia’s close friends, Johanna Fernandez, who is a professor at Baruch College in New York City.
One f the most controversial aspects of this story is that Zuniga took to social media to share what her students had done. She tweeted, “Just dropped off these letters to comrade Johanna Fernandez. My 3rd graders wrote to Mumia to lift up his spirits as he is ill. #freemumia.” When the school became aware of what she had done, they immediately suspended her, which is still in effect, according to the Washington Times. When pleading her case to the school board, Zuniga apologized for broadcasting the event online.
While I agree she should not make political statements online that involve her students, the main problem is that she did not inform the school of what she was doing. When involving a public figure as controversial as Mumia, the school should be made aware as well as the parents. Due to being left in the dark, many parents have voiced their outrage over the letter writing, which will probably become a contributing factor in May when a final decision of Zuniga’s job will be announced. As this was her first year teaching, she may have been blind to how sensitive the topic was by her excitement to share the cards.
However, the project was neither dangerous nor ill-intentioned. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Zuniga strove to teach her students compassion and how it should extend to all people, even those in prison. She helped humanize a man who by some is viewed as a monster. This is an important lesson for young children to learn and while it was executed in the wrong way, Zuniga was right to allow her students to write the cards.
An important fact to remember is that the students came up with the idea themselves; it was not a forced assignment. This speaks volumes to how innocent and caring children can be, which are rare qualities that should be preserved and encouraged rather than squandered. If Zuniga had said no, that would have conveyed the idea that a man in prison is undeserving of even a simple get well card. While it is clear that some mistakes were made, Zuniga does not deserve to lose her job for trying to be supportive and considerate of her students’ wishes.
Marisa Nobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.