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Teacher flees home amid threats after wearing ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt to online class

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Students and community members protest in front of El Camino Charter High School to show support a teacher who wore an 'I can't breathe' shirt while teaching a class on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020 in Woodland Hills, California.
Students and community members protest in front of El Camino Charter High School to show support a teacher who wore an 'I can't breathe' shirt while teaching a class on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020 in Woodland Hills, California. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — On the first day of class at El Camino Real Charter High School in Los Angeles, an English teacher appeared before her ninth-grade students online wearing a T-shirt with the words “I can’t breathe” written across the front in big block letters. She had just attended a workshop at her school about how to create an anti-racist curriculum. Her gesture was part of a national program called Black Lives Matter at School, a colleague wrote.

The slogan she wore has become a rallying cry for a national movement against police brutality. The three words were the last spoken by George Floyd, a Black man who died in May after a Minneapolis police officer put a knee on his neck, and by Eric Garner, a Black man who died after a police officer restrained him in a chokehold in New York in 2014.

But one parent thought his daughter’s teacher had gone too far. He just wanted his daughter to “go to English class and learn about English,” he told KCBS-TV Channel 2. He shared a screenshot of the teacher on social media unleashing nearly two weeks of turmoil as a national divide over race and policing infiltrated the high school in suburban Woodland Hills.

After a conservative media personality reposted the father’s screenshot, a torrent of threats poured in on social media, frightening the teacher enough that she fled her home with her daughter and sought restraining orders against the parent and the media commentator.

The school’s principal has tried to quell the uproar and mediate the controversy among parents amid calls by the teachers union for the school to better support and protect faculty.

On Wednesday, hundreds of teachers across the Los Angeles Unified School District wore Black Lives Matter shirts to class to show solidarity with the El Camino Real teacher. Outside the school’s campus Wednesday afternoon, about 100 students gathered to support her and “to end racial injustices and silence within our school systems,” according to an Instagram post publicizing the event.

“What happened at El Camino is a travesty,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz. “No one should have to endure those kinds of attacks, and surely the school should be doing a much better job in addressing the attacks as well as shielding the educators that work at the school site.”

The fury took off Aug. 16, when Elijah Schaffer, who hosts a podcast and YouTube show called “Slightly Offens(ASTERISK)ve,” posted the screenshot to his Twitter account. “A concerned father reached out to me because his daughter was not being taught English in her online English class,” Schaffer wrote.

That’s when the death threats started coming in, according to the teacher.

“Haven’t felt safe enough to go home since 8/18/20,” she wrote in her petition for a restraining order filed Monday in the Van Nuys Courthouse East. “Can’t work.” She also listed “mental anguish” and “fear for … my child’s safety” among the harms caused by the harassment.

Before going to court, the teacher sent an email to her students saying that she wouldn’t be in school and that her administration had not supported her.

“Please let other students know that the school has abandoned me, ironically after we had a whole day of professional development on how and why to create an anti-racist curriculum,” she wrote in the email.

She described her curriculum in a television interview as including “authors of color … writing, talking about being Black in a biased world.”

The Times is not naming the teacher because of her safety concerns. Reached by email, she declined to comment and referred a reporter to Myart-Cruz.

Myart-Cruz said the teacher, a single mother with a ninth-grade daughter, is “afraid for her life” and moving out of her home because her address was posted online. Myart-Cruz said that what the teacher was doing “was exactly right” in line with standards that encourage educators to talk about current and local events and with the goal of cultivating critical thinkers.

Myart-Cruz sent a letter to the school’s executive director, David Hussey, on Monday.

“Educators need to be able to teach about racial and social injustice without threats, harassment, bullying, or scare-tactics,” she wrote. “UTLA believes Black Lives Matter, has provided resources, and emphasizes that simply saying Black Lives Matter is not enough: educators and administrators must actively show it in their work in creating and promoting anti-racist curriculum.”

Hussey sent a schoolwide email Monday evening. The school “believes that all people are equal and that all voices should be heard, valued and included,” it said. “We also recognize the need to end systemic racism that disproportionately harms, disciplines, and fails our Black students. Therefore, ECR is dedicated to racial justice within our education.”

In an interview, Hussey said administrators last week reached out to the teacher, who has taught at El Camino Real for more than 10 years, “to try to help her and support her as best as we can.” He declined to comment further, citing confidentiality issues.

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