In an exclusive interview with the New York Daily News, English teacher Jeena Lee-Walker said she was told by her bosses at New York City’s High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry to be more “balanced” in her approach to the racially charged Central Park jogger rape case. In 2013, five Black and Latino teens were exonerated after spending several years in prison for the crime.
Lee-Walker wanted to develop a curriculum that would highlight the injustices of the American justice system, but her superiors believed Black students would riot and protest after learning the details.
News about her federal lawsuit were released today. According to the suit, she was fired for creating the curriculum about the Central Park Five because administrators feared it would “rile up” Black students. After 18 months of bad performance reviews, Lee-Walker was fired in May of 2015 and filed a suit in a Manhattan Federal Court.
The five teenagers’ story was documented in the 2012 Ken Burns film, The Central Park Five, which inspired her to start the curriculum.
After being found not guilty, the five men won a $40 million settlement in 2014 for the unjust amount of time they spent behind bars.
The case was racially charged from the get-go. A white woman was jogging in Central Park at night and five teens — who happened to be Black and Latino — near the alleged rape were accused of the crime. In 2014, now Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump called the settlement a “disgrace.”
On May 1, 1989, while the case was in the media spotlight, Trump took out full-page advertisements in four New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty and saying that “criminals of every age” who raped the woman in Central park should “be afraid,” according to The New York Times.
“The initial story of the crime, as told by the police and prosecutors, was that a band of young people, part of a larger gang that rampaged through Central Park, had mercilessly beaten and sexually assaulted the jogger,” The Times reported in 2014. “The story quickly exploded into the public psyche, fanned by politicians and sensational news reports that served to inflame racial tensions.”
Lee-Walker said her Central Park Five program captivated her students, many of whom came from the same neighborhood as the young men, the Daily News reported.
In fact, her students were enthusiastic about learning what happened.
They fired the type of teacher we need in these classrooms –> NYC teacher fired for lessons about Central Park Five https://t.co/dVXyW8315h
— Maliq Matthew (@MaliqMatthew) January 8, 2016
“It was awesome — they were so engaged,” she said. “They were really moved by the documentary and rightly so. They really identified with the teenagers.”
At this moment, Lee-Walker has taken legal action because she says the school has infringed on her first amendment rights. She told the Daily News that the firing violated the city’s contract with the teacher’s union because she was not given a required 60-days’ notice.