Teacher Fired After Racially Charged Lesson Loses Suit

MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge cleared New York City officials for firing a teacher out of concern that students would get riled up over her lesson on the Central Park Five – a group of black men whose wrongful conviction has been attributed to racial bias.

Voicing dissatisfaction with the ruling, the teacher’s attorney said “teachers need to be able to speak with students about important matters without fear of losing their jobs because a supervisor has a political disagreement with the teacher.”

The dispute erupted in November 2013 while Jeena Lee-Walker was teaching ninth-grade English at the High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee-Walker says Assistant Principal Christopher Yarmy voiced concern that she had incorporated materials on the Central Park Five for one lesson.

Predicting such a racially charged lesson could “rile up” black students, the assistant principal allegedly worried that the school could erupt in “little ‘riots.’”

Lee-Walker meanwhile defended her lesson as appropriately balanced. She says she also argued that “students in general, and black students in particular, should be riled up.” (Emphasis in complaint.)

Though the teacher agreed to take a “softer approach,” she says she still faced a heated meeting with Yarmy and Principal Stephen Noonan on Nov. 13.

Noonan allegedly took issue at the meeting with another of Lee-Walker’s lessons that involved a short story by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. She says Noonan deemed the text inappropriate given its use of the word nigger.

Lee-Walker’s performance evaluations were unblemished prior to this meeting, according to the complaint, but began to dip that December. By March, Vice Principal Benny Ureana had allegedly given the teacher her first “ineffective” ratings.

Lee-Walker says she was rated as below average for the year that June, and that the school drummed up a basis to threaten her with termination in November 2014.

Apparently the lock for a laptop assigned to Lee-Walker had gone missing, and administrators slammed her for not reporting the lock’s absence after three days, according to the complaint.

Lee-Walker says she challenged the ratings as pretextual in March 2015, and that Superintendent Fred Walsh formally terminated her two months later.

The woman filed suit this past January, but U.S. District Judge John Koeltl dismissed the case on Nov. 23.

“The plaintiff does not dispute that her speech in the classroom as part of a lesson plan was made pursuant to her duties as a public school teacher,” the 23-page opinion states. “Indeed, those statements ‘were made to [her] own students, at school, during class, concerning a topic that [s]he alleges [s]he believed to be of importance to their continuing’ education.

“The plaintiff does argue that her conversations with Principal Noonan and Assistant Principal Yarmy were ‘private discussions’ that ‘did not relate solely to her objections to the limits placed on her classroom speech’ and constituted ‘speech on a matter of public concern.’ But, the fact that the speech was related to matters of public concern is insufficient if the speech was made ‘pursuant to [her] official duties.’ … Indeed, speech is not protected if it is ‘ “part-and-parcel of [the employee’s] concerns” about [the employee’s] ability to “properly execute [the employee’s] duties.”’”

Koeltl said Lee-Walker’s challenge to “the views of Noonan and Yarmy need not have related solely to her classroom responsibilities to have been ‘pursuant to’ her official duties.”

“What matters is that the speech was ‘part-and-parcel’ of her concerns regarding the ability to teach effectively,” the decision continues.

“Indeed, limiting speech made ‘pursuant to’ a public employee’s official duties to preclude any speech which also represents the speaker’s personal views would render the standard meaningless.”

Lee-Walker’s attorney Stephen Bergstein said they are considering an appeal to the Second Circuit.

“We think the case law supports our position that free speech cases in the educational context are different than other public employee speech cases because we run the risk of teachers losing their jobs because someone disagrees with them politically,” Bergstein said. “If the teacher stays true to the curriculum, she needs the academic freedom to discuss important and controversial matters with her students.”

City attorney Zachary Carter represented the board of education.