A New York City public school teacher allegedly fired for designing a curriculum based in part on five men wrongly convicted of raping a woman has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the New York City Department of Education and her former administrators.
According to the New York Daily News, which first reported the story last week, 37-year-old English teacher Jenna Lee-Walker was dismissed from her Upper West Side high school for creating lessons about the Central Park Five, the name given to a group of five black and Hispanic men sent to prison for the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989.
The men were later exonerated in 2002 after an inmate, whose DNA matched that taken from the crime scene, confessed to the attack.
Lee-Walker told the Daily News that administrators at the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry advised her in November 2013 to take a more “balanced approach” with her curriculum, and said her lessons, according to the paper, had the potential to create little “riots.”
Lee-Walker said she would “soften her approach” to teaching the case, but said she wanted students, in particular African Americans, to be “riled up,” according to the Daily News.
“I kind of wanted to hook them in, engage them, win them over,” she said, according to the newspaper. “I thought that this material was not only engaging but important.”
An email sent Monday to Lee-Walker’s attorney, Ambrose Wotorson, seeking comment was not returned. A spokesman for the New York City Law Department, which handles lawsuits brought against the city, told NBC News that “we will review the claims.”
Following “tense exchanges” with administrators, Lee-Walker was given a series of poor performance reviews over an 18-month period, resulting in her dismissal in May, according to the Daily News. Lee-Walker also said her First Amendment right to discuss the case had been violated, and that her firing was in violation of the city contract with the teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, since she was not provided with a required 60 days of notice.
In 1990, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wise — all under 16 when they were arrested — were sentenced for assaulting and raping 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, who penned a memoir in 2003. Wise spent 13 years in prison and the rest of the men seven years before their convictions were vacated.
The city settled a federal lawsuit with the five men in 2014, paying out a total of $40 million.
Salaam told the Huffington Post Monday that they “salute” Lee-Walker.
“We are so thankful that there are teachers like you that are willing to talk about the truth in spite of the fact that you’ve been asked to water down things,” he said. “We don’t want anything to be watered down.”
Santana said they would probably rally for Lee-Walker and even go to the courthouse, adding that she should get her job back, according to the website.
“I want her to keep doing what she’s doing,” he said. “I hope this doesn’t discourage her.”