Marylin Zuniga, a third-grade teacher in New Jersey, had no idea an assignment she gave to her students to write a get-well letter to former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal would cause an uproar, cost her a suspension without pay and spark an ongoing debate about the merits of the assignment.
While he has become a hero among Black militants, in New Jersey, Abu-Jamal is a sensitive subject, as he was on death row for 30 years for killing a police officer. Now serving life in prison, he has been ill for the past few months, which Zuniga thought would be an appropriate time for her students in Orange, N.J. to write the radio journalist who has garnered much support, largely because many believe he is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted.
In a statement issued last week, Orange Public School administrators denied any prior knowledge of the assignment and said they are currently investigating the incident.
“The incident reported is in no way condoned nor does it reflect curriculum, program or activities approved by the district,” says the statement, according to NJ.com.
Baruch College history professor Johanna Fernandez delivered the letters to Abu-Jamal last week. Fernandez said Abu-Jamal “was touched” to receive the notes, according to The Associated Press.
Zuniga’s assignment has prompted a range of reactions. While some parents and police leaders are dismayed, many activists have come to the teacher’s defense. The hashtag #ISupportMarylin has also gained momentum on Twitter
“If that was her personal business, then she could have kept that her personal business, but the children should have never gotten involved in that,” Mike Brown, who has a son in the district, told NJ.com about the teacher’s support for Abu-Jamal.
“It’s not a good use of school time. It’s absolutely not teaching them anything except how to interact with a convicted cop killer,” John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, a labor union, told the AP. “So if I was a parent there, I would absolutely be appalled.”
On Monday in New Jersey, Larry Hamm, the chairman of the progressive grassroots organization People’s Organization for Progress, stood before a crowd of 500 people, gathered to discuss issues that include police brutality, and urged them to support Zuniga.
“She tried not only to instruct her children in terms of skills, but also tried to help them understand what it means a compassionate human being,” Hamm said, according to the outlet. “We need to support this young woman… Her heart is the right heart.”