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Central Park Five Lesson Led to Firing, Teacher Says

MANHATTAN (CN) - Worried that her lesson on the Central Park Five would "rile up" black students, school officials gave an Ivy League-educated high school English teacher the boot, she claims in court.

Trouble for Jeena Lee-Walker began in November 2013 while she was teaching ninth-grade English at the High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry, according to the complaint.

As part of her curriculum, Lee-Walker incorporated materials on the Central Park Five, a famous case that the complaint describes as highlighting the U.S. "societal tendency to rush to adverse legal conclusions against black males."

Lee-Walker says Assistant Principal Christopher Yarmy had sat in on this lesson and told her later that he worried such a racially charged lesson could "rile up" black students, setting the stage potentially for "little 'riots.'"

For her part, according to the complaint, Lee-Walker insisted that her lesson was appropriately balanced and that "students in general, and black students in particular, should be riled up." (Emphasis in original.)

Lee-Walker deferred to instructions to take a "softer approach" but says she still faced a heated meeting with Yarmy and Principal Stephen Noonan on Nov. 13, according to the complaint.

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.

Though up until that point unblemished, Lee-Walker's performance evaluations began to take a dip that December, according to the complaint.

Vice Principal Benny Ureana allegedly gave the Seoul, South Korea-born teacher her first "ineffective" ratings the following March.

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.

Alleging violations of her First Amendment and due-process rights, Lee-Walker seeks punitive damages. She is represented by Ambrose Wotorson.

A spokeswoman for the legal department of the New York City Department of Education did not follow up on a promise to return a call seeking comment.

Despite alleged administrative concerns about riling up students, DOE materials describes the school's mission as "provok[ing] students to reach beyond themselves" and "encourage[ing] civic dialogue which empowers all of the members of our diverse school community to work towards a more just, humane and vibrant world."

Lee-Walker's complaint lays out an impressive resume for the Brooklyn-based plaintiff who studied at Bard College, Harvard University and Fordham University.

The teacher says her lesson on the Central Park Five aimed to help students "contextualize 'Miranda Warnings' and to understand their role in civil society."

Around the time of Lee-Walker's lesson on the Central Park Five, a 2012 documentary of the same name had renewed interest in the wrongful-conviction case that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration largely kept quiet for a decade.

Antron McRay, Raymond Santana Jr., Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam brought the case after using DNA evidence to vacate their convictions related to the brutal rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989.

Though men today, the Central Park Five had been between the ages of 14 and 16 when they confessed to the horrific crime.

Details of the gruesome attack fed into racial-tension-engorged myths of gangs of minority teenagers committing group crime sprees referred to as "wilding."

Convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes admitted that he was the actual perpetrator after the five had served their sentences. DNA testing corroborated Reyes' confession.

Bloomberg's successor Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned in part on a promise to settle with the five. In June 2014, New York City agreed to pay the exonerated five a $40 million settlement .

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