U.S. professors defend N.J. teacher over third-graders' 'get well' letters to convicted cop killer

By Bill Wichert | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 14, 2015

Marylin Zuniga allegedly had third-graders at an Orange school write letters that were delivered to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of a police officer.


ORANGE — A group of educators is calling for the reinstatement of an Orange elementary school teacher who has been suspended after her third-grade students wrote "get well" letters to former death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In a letter dated Tuesday to Orange Superintendent Ronald Lee, 15 educators - most of whom teach at American universities - praised teacher Marylin Zuniga's work in the classroom.

"With love for her students, she has encouraged them to ask hard questions that many schools choose to ignore," the letter reads. "It is time to restore Ms. Zuniga to her post, with full pay, renewed respect - even with commendation for her wisdom and courage in times so threatening and foreboding for our children of color and for all who care about justice in the land today."

The educators' letter has been posted on the website of "Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal," a group that advocates for Abu-Jamal's innocence in the killing of a Philadelphia police officer.

The educators who signed the letter mostly consist of professors at American universities and a professor from a university in Germany.

Among the educators to sign the letter is Johanna Fernández, a professor at Baruch College in New York City, who delivered the students' letters to Abu-Jamal on April 6, according to a post on her Facebook page.

Fernandez was among the activists who urged attendees at an event on Monday to rally outside a school board meeting on Tuesday in support of Zuniga.

After learning about the class assignment through news reports, Orange school officials announced on Friday in a statement that Zuniga was immediately suspended with pay, and vowed to conduct a "full investigation" into the matter.

The letters also have drawn criticism from school parents and the head of the New Jersey State Police Union.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association said an attorney, Nancy Oxfeld, has been assigned to Zuniga's case. "Because this is a pending disciplinary matter, NJEA will not comment further at this point," NJEA spokesman Steven Baker said in an email.

Oxfeld did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Abu-Jamal, 60, is serving a life sentence for killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. His family has told ABC News that he was recently taken to the hospital for complications related to diabetes.

In their letter, the educators compare Zuniga's students' letters to the letters sent by children to South African leader Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned several decades ago.

"We believe that Ms. Zuniga's compassionate and discerning approach to the current issues of civil rights violations is appropriate in this time of racialized violence," according to the letter.

"Her students' letters to Abu-Jamal are reminiscent of the hundreds of South African children who wrote letters of well-wishes to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela twenty to thirty years ago.

"Because Nelson Mandela was identified as a terrorist by the U.S. until 2008, it took courage for teachers and students to do that then and it takes courage for teachers and students to do it for Abu-Jamal today. Many recognize Abu-Jamal as this generation's Nelson Mandela in the US. Both men waged struggle against injustice and all economic exploitation and racism, beginning in their youth and then across decades in prison."

In their letter, the educators also suggest that Zuniga's students came up with the idea to write "get well" letters to Abu-Jamal.

"When Abu-Jamal was made ill by medical abuse and neglect in prison, the students understandably expressed to Ms. Zuniga a desire to write him 'get well letters,'" according to the letter. "It was fully appropriate for Ms. Zuniga to support that wish, without making it a required assignment."

"We understand that it was a volunteer project that students undertook after their assignments," the letter adds. "The professional way Ms. Zuniga encouraged without mandating the letter-writing activity is highly exemplary."

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