A third-grade social studies teacher at a public elementary school in Orange, New Jersey, has been suspended after assigning her students to write 'get well' letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a prison inmate convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981.
According to NJ.com
, Orange Superintendent Ronald Lee provided a statement criticizing teacher Marilyn Zuniga both for the nature of the assignment and for neglecting to notify the school and parents about the unauthorized classroom activity.
"The incident reported is in no way condoned nor does it reflect curriculum, program, or activities approved by the district," the statement read.
School officials will complete a full investigation after they return from spring break. In the meantime, Zuniga has been suspended with pay and may face additional action from the Board of Education pending the results of the investigation.
Abu-Jamal, 60, is serving a life sentence following his conviction for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner. He had been on death row until 2008, when a federal appeals court upheld the original conviction but ruled that he should receive a new sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Abu-Jamal's case quickly became a topic of debate over racial prejudice, police brutality, capital punishment and incarceration in the United States. Thirty-four years later, Mumia remains a polarizing symbol. Recent high-profile cases in this country have renewed calls for reforms to policing and systems of justice.
Zuniga partnered with other educators on the 'get well' letter assignment, which was intended to lift Abu-Jamal's spirits in light of reported health complications from diabetes
. Johanna Fernández, a professor in the Departments of History and of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College in New York City, announced Monday, via Facebook, that she had delivered the letters from Zuniga's third-graders and a group of high school students from the Philadelphia Student Union, led by Mr. Hiram Rivera.
Neither Fernández nor Zuniga has commented following the suspension and ensuing controversy.
Fernández is a part of the organization "Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal," which advocates for Abu-Jamal's innocence and celebrates his revolutionary activism as writer.
Zuniga, according to her teacher bio page, holds a bachelors of arts degree in family and child studies and a New Jersey certification of eligibility with advanced standing (grades K-5) from Montclair State University. Her Twitter account has been deactivated in the wake of her suspension. Rich Costello from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5, provided the following statement to FOX News:
"I think it's both alarming and outrageous that any teacher would use a group of innocent 7-year-olds to promote a twisted agenda glorifying murder, glorifying hatred and glorifying violence. He shot [Faulkner] in the back and then as the officer lay slumped against a wall helpless, he leaned over and shot him between the eyes."
On Twitter, reactions to the assignment have mostly been harsh, as Zuniga and Rivera are accused of co-opting young minds to comfort and valorize a convicted killer.