Ninth-grade English Language Arts Teacher Fired for Central Park Five: Jeena Lee-Walker

Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Jeena Lee-Walker ‘00. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

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Former English Teacher, Jeena Lee-Walker is notorious for being fired from teaching at the High School for Arts for composing a curriculum with lessons about the Central Park jogger case, which administrators feared would “rile up” black students, in November 2013.

Brief scope of the Past

Jeena Lee-Walker graduated from Barnard in 2000 and earned post-grad degrees from Harvard and Fordham. She began working for New York City Department of
Education (“DOE”), beginning in 2011, as a 9th-grade English at the “High School for
Arts, Imagination and Inquiry” in Manhattan.

“Central Park Five Case, Explained” 

The Central Park jogger case was a major news story that circulated throughout numerous news industries in the late 90’s. The story revolved around five boys of color, Antron McCray (15), Kevin Richardson (14), Yusef Salaam (15), Raymond Santana (14), and Korey Wise (16), and a 28-year-old white woman named Trisha Meili.

According to the recollections Ken Burns received for his documentary The Central Park Five, on the night of April 19, 1989, a group of about 30 young teenagers (mostly black and Latinx boys) met up in Central Park around 9-10 p.m. and engaged in various acts of mischief, like throwing rocks at cars. They even went as far as assaulting random joggers, leading to the arrest of two of the young boys by the police, Kevin and Raymond. They were held for hours in the Central Park precinct before officers contacted their parents to notify them of their arrest for “unlawful assembly.” They also reported that the boys would eventually be sent home with a ticket to family court. However, at 1:30 a. m., a 28-year-old white woman named Trisha Meili was discovered in Central park, beaten badly, raped, and barely alive. Hence, the boys were held longer than promised due to suspicions that they may be possible perpetrators involved the incident regarding Meili.

The boys were still detained the next morning and ushered into separate rooms where cops questioned them individually about Meili. Several more teenagers, including Antron, Yusef, and Korey, were brought in for questioning later that day. The boys were detained and endured non-stop interrogation for over  14-30 hours. Moreover, detectives threatened and coached them into providing the answers they wanted to hear. Teen Vogue author, Lincoln Anthony Blades also reported that:

Days later, the five boys were indicted for attempted murder, rape in the first degree, sodomy in the first degree, sexual abuse in the first degree, two counts of assault in the first degree, and riot in the first degree. Once the boys left the interrogation room, each and every one of them reversed course on the lies they were goaded into telling when speaking with legal counsel.

A trial in August, 1990 acquitted Yusef, Antron, and Raymond of attempted murder, but convicted them of rape, assault, robbery, and riot. A second trial ending in December 1990, convicted Kevin of attempted murder, rape, assault, and robbery, and Korey of sexual abuse, assault, and riot. All of the boys faced charges of five to 15 years in prison, four of whom resulted in serving seven years, while Korey, charged as an adult, was sent to Rikers Island.

It wasn’t until 12 years later that Meili’s true attacker steps into the spotlight.  Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist already serving a 33-years-to-life sentence confessed to attack. Tied with new DNA evidence, New York County district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau vacated the convictions of the five boys and cleared all charges, after having already served their time in prison. Kevin, Raymond, and Antron took this opportunity to sue New York City for $250 million, citing malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, and eventually reached a settlement for $40 million.

Film makers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon released a documentary examining the case on November 23, 2012, called The Central Park Five.

Why Fired?

Lee-Walker argued, in response to administrators, “that students in general, and black students in particular, should be riled up,” despite agreeing to dial down her approach. She believed her lessons to be captivating and the topic to be important. She also found it to be a perfect application of the Miranda v. Arizona court case

Administrators still accused Lee-Walker of insubordination and given poor evaluations, more so because she pushed back.

Feeling abandoned and mistreated, Lee-Walker filed a suit in Manhattan Federal Court, and named the Department of Education and several school administrators as defendants. She claimed that:

retaliation against her violated her First Amendment right to discuss the Central Park Five case, and that the firing violated the city’s contract with the teacher’s union because she was not given a required 60 days notice.

In her favor, her lawyer, Ambrose Wotorson, told The News, “We’re not looking to turn our students into automatons. We’re looking to turn out independent thinkers — and she got fired for that, and that’s just wrong.”

On November 23, 2016, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Lee-Walker’ case, reasoning that “her termination was not a violation of her rights” because school districts can regulate the content of school-sponsored speech as long as they are “reasonably related to pedagogical concerns.” Furthermore, Lee-Walker’s lesson plans, were not entitled to First Amendment protections.

As of February 27, 2018, Husch Blackwell LLP and Theresa Mullineaux report in an article for JD Supra:

If the Supreme Court decides to hear Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., the Court will address two issues: (1) do state-employed pedagogues enjoy the protections of free speech in academia, especially given the Garcetti case and (2) if not, does the First Amendment protect a teacher or professor in a public school or university?

Resources

Learn more about Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. by reading the legal brief for the case.

Aziza Rahman ’20

Sources

Bekiempis, Victoria and Greene, Leonard. “EXCLUSIVE: NYC high school teacher claims she was fired for Central Park Five lessons that administrators feared would create ‘riots’.” New York Daily News, New York Daily News, January 8, 2016, accessed May 30, 2018, http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-teacher-fired-lessons-central-park-article-1.2489687.

Blackwell, Husch, LLP and Mullineaux, Theresa. “Jeena Lee-Walker V. N.Y.C. Dep’t Of Educ. Et Al.: Book Banning And The First Amendment.” JD Supra, JD Supra, LLC, February 27, 2018, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/jeena-lee-walker-v-n-y-c-dep-t-of-educ-27242/.

Blades, Lincoln A. “Central Park Five Case, Explained.” Teen Vogue, Condé Nast, July 18, 2017, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/central-park-five-case-explained

Jeena Lee-Walker v. City of New York Department of Education of the City of New York, et al., 42 U.S.C. 1983 (2018).

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