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EAA retaliates against Brooke Harris, ACLU charges

Brooke Harris looks at notebook of allegations EAA levied against her. STAFF PHOTO

Brooke Harris looks at notebook of allegations EAA levied against her. STAFF PHOTO

By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Criticizing the Educational Achievement Authority has been costly for Brooke Harris, an English teacher at Mumford High School, who is waiting to hear whether she has a job or not.

Mumford is one of the Detroit schools taken by Gov. Rick Snyder to create the EAA — the state run district for “failing” schools. The EAA is charging Harris for “directly encouraging” a student walkout at Mumford on June 13.

Harris denies it.

“If I had organized a walkout, you (the press) would have been there, and there would have been a lot more students,” Harris said.

In fact, Harris was in New York City the day an estimated eight to 12 students walked out.

“It appears, however, that Mumford Principal K.C. Wilbourn immediately blamed Ms. Harris for the walkout and forced Ms. Harris to go on leave the same day, without even asking her if she was involved,” reads a letter sent in defense of Harris by the Detroit office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to John Covington, chancellor of the EAA.

Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU, submitted the letter in support of Harris and “to supplement the information presented” at her pre-termination hearing, held July 15 in private law offices instead of an open public meeting as Harris had requested and the Open Meetings Act provides.

The charges against Harris are “unsubstantiated,” the ACLU said.

Urrond Williams conducted “an investigation of the incident that neglected to include any questioning of the students who walked out about their motivation for leaving school,” according to the ACLU. “Instead, both Principal Wilbourn and Investigator Williams used second and third-hand hearsay information from students who did not participate in the walkout to reach their conclusions that Ms. Harris was responsible.”

According to the ACLU, William’s decision to selectively present, and turn over, only those student statements that cast suspicion on Harris, despite obtaining more statements, “suggest that the walkout investigation was not conducted in good faith and aimed from the outset at implicating Ms. Harris.”

Harris, who says she now has another job but would like to return to teaching at Mumford, believes and the ACLU suggests the termination attempt is a result of her public criticism of the EAA before its board and before the House Education Committee May 9, where she testified against statewide expansion of the EAA, discussing its failures in Detroit.

She has also drawn fire as faculty adviser for the student-created and operated Student Justice League. “One issue raised by students at SJL meetings,” the ACLU letter states, “involved improving educational quality at Mumford.” The students have expressed concern over the lack of books, overcrowded classrooms, the online instruction program “Buzz,” which is the core of the EAA teaching system, and unwarranted suspensions for petty matters. The ACLU says, “To our knowledge, none of the students who walked out were members of SJL or students in Ms. Harris’s classes.”

None of the students involved were questioned by the investigator nor were any of their statements presented during the EAA hearing. Tyrone Winfrey, chief of staff for the EAA, conducted the hearing, Harris said, although it was promised an impartial panel would conduct the hearing.

Winfrey did not return phone calls for comment.

“Brooke Harris has publicly expressed her view on certain EAA policies and the way in which those policies are implemented at Mumford on several occasions,” the ACLU statement reads. Citing legal precedent, the ACLU notes, “Ms. Harris’s speech on secondary education, a matter of great public concern, is entitled to the greatest constitutional protection.”

The ACLU is asking the EAA to purge her record, reinstate her at full salary and compensate her fully for time off.

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