Jeena Lee-Walker, a former teacher with the High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry in New York, was fired over her 2013 curriculum that focused on the “Central Park Five:” a group of African American and Latino teens who spent between six and 13 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in the 1989-rape and murder of a jogger, 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, in the city’s Central Park, according to a recently filed federal lawsuit, as reported by the New York Daily News.
The group of New York teens was the subject of a 2012 documentary entitled The Central Park Five, which has received a rating of 7.7 out of 10 stars from reviewers at IMDb. Lee-Walker used the documentary as a means of connecting with her students, some of whom lived and had grown up in the same neighborhood the members of the Central Park Five came from.
“It was awesome — they were so engaged,” Jeena Lee-Walker was quoted. “They were really moved by the documentary and rightly so. They really identified with the teenagers.”
— BCNN1 (@bcnn1) January 9, 2016
After the film reignited debate about the case, Jeena Lee-Walker felt that it would be a timely and worthy addition to her curriculum, and one that African American students would engage in — seemingly correctly so. Despite this, the high school asked Lee-Walker to present a more “balanced” presentation of the events surrounding the Central Park Five, so as not to potentially “rile up” black students, or start “riots,” as reported by the Root.
“I was stunned,” the New York City teacher stated. “I was kind of like, the facts are the facts. This is what happened. These boys went to jail and lost 14, 18 years of their lives. How can you say that in a more balanced way?”
U.S. needs more educators like Jeena Lee-Walker who reject revisionist history & teach the truth. She's a leader. #CentralParkFive
— Kristen Leigh (@Kris10ly) January 8, 2016
Lee-Walker was said to have agreed to “tone down” the material she was teaching, but persisted in keeping the Central Park Five as a part of her lesson plans. After a series of poor performance reviews, the teacher was reported to have been fired — she claims that administrators with the high school labeled her as “insubordinate” for “pushing back,” as well as her “insistence” on teaching the material. She was reported to have stated that she felt “mistreated” and “abandoned.” Lee-Walker also expressed a belief that other teachers in the system harbor similar beliefs.
“Ms. Lee-Walker is the type of teacher we want in a classroom,” Ambrose Wotorson, Jeena Lee-Walker’s attorney was quoted. “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.”
The federal lawsuit alleges that Lee-Walker’s First Amendment rights were violated when she was forbidden to discuss the case. Further, the case states that the teacher’s termination was in violation of the teachers’ union contract with the City of New York, which specifies that 60-day notices must be provided.
In 2002, Matias Reyes confessed that he, and not the Central Park Five, was responsible for the snatching, rape, and murder of Trisha Meili as she jogged through Central Park on April 19, 1989, according to the New York Daily News. The detective who interviewed Reyes and and got him to confess to the crime described him as being one of the “top five lunatics” he had encountered during his 20-year career. Following Reyes’ confession, his DNA was found on a sock belonging to Trisha Meili.
Some have theorized that Reyes and the members of the Central Park Five may have known each other and perpetrated the attack together, according to the New York Daily News. Kevin Richardson, who spent seven years in prison for Meili’s death, insists that he did not know Reyes. He also stated that he felt “sorry” for Trisha Meili and her ghastly fate.
[Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images]