TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A teacher in New Jersey who assigned her third-grade class to write "get well" letters to a sick inmate convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer was suspended Friday, the school superintendent said.
Orange School Superintendent Ronald Lee said in a statement that school administrators "vehemently deny" any knowledge of Marylin Zuniga's assignment. Preliminary inquiries found that Zuniga did not seek approval from administrators nor were parents notified, Lee said.
The letters were delivered to Mumia Abu-Jamal in prison following his hospitalization last month for what his family said was treatment for complications from diabetes. The former Black Panther is serving life behind bars for the 1981 murder of white Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner. His conviction was upheld through years of appeals, but he has gained international support for his claim that he is the victim of a racist justice system.
Philadelphia's police union expressed outrage over the get-well cards.
"It's not a good use of school time. It's absolutely not teaching them anything except how to interact with a convicted cop killer," said John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. "So if I was a parent there, I would absolutely be appalled."
A supporter and history professor at Baruch College, Johanna Fernandez, showed Abu-Jamal the letters while she visited him Monday.
"I think he was touched," Fernandez told The Associated Press on Friday.
Fernandez defended Zuniga from what she called the police union's attempt to demonize and bully her, saying Abu-Jamal has received many letters from children over the years.
"Quite frankly, I'm more concerned about 8-year-olds witnessing a police officer kill an innocent man in South Carolina than I am about a teacher sending letters her children wrote to one of the most important black public intellectuals of our time, who happens to be very ill," said Fernandez, referring to the shooting last weekend of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.
The school district was closed for spring break, and the superintendent said a full investigation would begin when classes resume on Monday.
Zuniga will remain suspended with pay until the investigation is completed, the superintendent said. Additional action could be taken by the school board once the investigation is finished.
"The incident reported is in no way condoned nor does it reflect curriculum, program or activities approved by the district," Lee said in a statement.
Zuniga did not immediately return an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Abu-Jamal was released from a hospital in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, on April 1, and returned to the prison, where Fernandez said he was frail but in good spirits.
He spent nearly 30 years on death row before a federal appeals court, citing flawed jury instructions, ordered a new sentencing hearing for the onetime radio journalist. Prosecutors subsequently dropped their bid for capital punishment, and Abu-Jamal was moved into the general prison population.
His writings and taped commentaries on the justice system turned him into a cause celebre among activists and foreign politicians, and his story has been told in books and documentaries.
After he made a recorded commencement address to a Vermont college last fall, the Pennsylvania legislature approved a law that lets victims take civil action against violent offenders whose conduct perpetuates their "mental anguish." The law is being challenged on free-speech grounds.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.