A New Jersey public school teacher who instructed her third-grade students to write “get well” letters to a convicted cop killer was fired at a raucous school board meeting that stretched into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, despite her pleas that “there’s a community behind me.”
"Even when I heard that the letters were written...because of compassion, you could've written to somebody in a nursing home."
Marylin Zuniga, a first-year teacher who drew widespread condemnation for assigning her young charges the task of writing to Mumia Abu-Jamal, was canned at the meeting of the Orange Board of Education, the Star-Ledger of Newark reported.
Zuniga, who taught at Forest Street Elementary School, told board members prior to their hasty vote to can her that she has broad support from around the country, the newspaper reported.
"There's people around the nation who support me, who believe I need to be reinstated and I believe that I need to be reinstated,” Zuniga said. “My students need me in the classroom. My students have requested that I come back to the classroom."
Abu-Jamal, a 61-year-old serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, is a self-styled poet who became a darling of celebrities and activists while on death row. His sentence was later commuted to life without parole, and he was suffering from complications from diabetes when Zuniga assigned the task.
The vote to fire Zuniga occurred after several hours of public speakers, many of whom praised Zuniga for teaching her students to have compassion for a man who killed a police officer. Abu-Jamal killed Faulkner during a routine traffic stop of Abu-Jamal’s brother. At trial, several witnesses reported seeing Abu-Jamal kill Faulkner, and two witnesses said Abu-Jamal confessed to the killing, saying, "I shot the mother---er, and I hope the mother---er dies."
Although the abrupt vote left meeting attendees unsure of what had happened, Orange Superintendent Ronald Lee confirmed that Zuniga was fired in an email to the Star-Ledger.
"As this is a personnel issue, I have no further comments on this matter," Lee wrote.
Zuniga’s attorney, Alan Levine, told the newspaper Zuniga is now considering legal action to challenge her firing.
Several speakers at the meeting, including Essex County Freeholder President Britnee Timberlake, praised Zuniga.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for trying to crucify her," Timberlake said.
But Orange resident Gloria Stewart told the board that Zuniga did not deserve to keep her job.
"Even when I heard that the letters were written...because of compassion, you could've written to somebody in a nursing home," Stewart said. "You could've written to someone else that was sick to show compassion."