L.A. teacher flees home amid threats after wearing ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt to online class

Students protest in front of El Camino Real Charter High School in support of a teacher who wore an "I can't breathe" shirt
Students and community members protest Wednesday in front of El Camino Real Charter High School in support of a teacher who wore an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt while teaching an online class.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

On the first day of class at El Camino Real Charter High School, 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 among 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.

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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.

UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz wears a Black Lives Matter T-shirt under a red blazer
UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz wears a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“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*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.

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“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.

Junior Ashto Summers, 16, wears a Black Lives Matter mask
Junior Ashton Summers, 16, wears a Black Lives Matter mask as he joins fellow students and community members protesting in front of El Camino Real Charter High School to show support for a teacher who wore an ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt to online class.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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.”

A student holds a sign that says "Defend our teachers" at a protest supporting a teacher who wore an "I can't breathe" shirt
Students and community members protest in front of El Camino Real Charter High School.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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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.

Hussey said the teacher had not violated any school policies by wearing an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt, but he said the employee handbook was ambiguous on this specific point.

“We’re going to have to reevaluate our policies,” he said. “We’re in a new era now.”

El Camino Real is a charter high school within Los Angeles Unified. Its teachers are represented by UTLA. About 40% of its students are white, 30% are Hispanic or Latino, 10% are Asian, and 4% are African American, according to California Department of Education data.

Hussey said he has received emails from people who support the teacher and from those who have asked why he was allowing students to be “indoctrinated.” He said that in conversations with the latter group, he expresses unequivocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but he wants teachers to facilitate “a safe space to have courageous conversation” rather than impose a specific viewpoint.

“It’s not just Black lives,” he said. “It’s gender equality, it’s abortion. There are a lot of hot topics that we want our students to be able to form their own thoughts [about] and have the fortitude to stand up for them.”

Reached by text, the father who posted the first screenshot declined to comment, on the advice of his attorney, he said. He told KCBS that it was “horrible” that the teacher had received death threats and that he had not sought to get her fired. He said in the text message that he too has had to “deal with protecting my family” and asked that his name not be used.

One freshman student who attended Wednesday’s protest to show support for the targeted teacher said her English teacher also wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt on the first day of classes.

“I was very happy that she wore it,” the 13-year-old said. “I thought it was very brave of her. I knew that there could of course be some sort of backlash.”

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She was critical of the parent who circulated the teacher’s image on social media, which she attributed to dissatisfaction with a curriculum in which students learn about current events. The student, whose name was withheld, said she feared retaliation in the charged atmosphere.

“As a grown adult you’re supposed to set an example,” she said. “The fact that you can’t even stand that your child’s going to learn about what’s going on in the world today is really sad.”