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Teachers Warned Not to Wear Pro-NYPD T-Shirts to School

By Nicholas Rizzi | September 4, 2014 3:37pm
 Teachers and staff from P.S. 220 in Queens wearing t-shirts in support of the NYPD on the first day of classes, to protest their union's backing of the Eric Garner march on Staten Island.
Teachers and staff from P.S. 220 in Queens wearing t-shirts in support of the NYPD on the first day of classes, to protest their union's backing of the Eric Garner march on Staten Island.
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Facebook/Thank You NYPD

STATEN ISLAND — Staten Island teachers were slapped with a stern warning this week not to wear pro-NYPD T-shirts to school — as an email told them that doing so could get them in trouble with the Department of Education.

An email to United Federation of Teachers members Wednesday night warned them that the Department of Education considers wearing pro-NYPD shirts to protest last month's UFT-sanctioned Eric Garner rally a threat to their ability to remain "objective" as public employees, according to a copy of the email posted online.

"The DOE has reason to believe that there may be protests in the form of tee shirts that will be worn to school tomorrow," the note begins, according to a version shared on Facebook. "They asked us to remind you that as public employees, one must remain objective at all times."

 Thousands marched to honor the death of Eric Garner, who died after he was put in an apparent chokehold by police in Staten Island.
Eric Garner March
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"Certain tee shirt messages may appear to be supportive, but individuals (parents, students) may see a different meaning in that message," the note continued. "Principals may report any inappropriate apparel to the chancellor."

The message ends by telling members to let others know "so they are aware of potential implications."

UFT Staten Island borough representative Debra Penny would not say whether the UFT sent out the email. She said the DOE did not ask the union to send it out. In a statement released Friday, UFT president Michael Mulgrew said they encourage members to express their opinion, just not in the classroom.

"As a democratic union, we encourage all our 200,000 members to express their opinions," Mulgrew said in a statement. "But Department of Education regulations require school personnel to avoid distracting clothes and openly political statements when in school."

The DOE also denied asking the union to send the notice, but a spokeswoman said that anything that distracts from learning, especially on the first day of classes, should be kept out of the classroom.

Even with the warning, some teachers around the city posted pictures of themselves wearing the T-shirts on Thursday on the "Thank You NYPD" Facebook page. However, the note had a chilling effect at P.S. 44 in Staten Island, staff said.

"We left work yesterday all in agreement to wear it," said Rachael Bulla, a second-grade teacher at the school. "Nobody in my school wore the shirts because we were afraid we would be written up."

Community Education Council member and retired NYPD Lieutenant Mike Reilly, who posted parts of the email Wednesday night on Facebook, said he knows teachers wore the shirts when they reported to class on Tuesday and Wednesday, but hasn't heard of any who decided to wear them on the first day of class.

"I appreciate the support," Reilly said. "But in no way I would want anybody to have any disciplinary problems. Why start the school year off bad?"

The president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association criticized the warning, which he believes was sent by the UFT. He said it goes against what unions stand for.

"Mike Mulgrew needs to consider the opinions of the vast majority of his members before misusing their dues money to support anti-police issues," Pat Lynch said in a statement.

"Besides, what could be inappropriate about showing support for the police department that protects teachers and students alike? I also find it odd that a union would use management-like scare tactics in order to suppress the free expression of their members' ideas."

Mulgrew invited Lynch to take part in meetings to help police and the community move forward after the death of Garner.

"The Eric Garner march was a teachable moment for all New Yorkers, but the lesson seems to have been lost on Mr. Lynch," Mulgrew said.

"I intend to set up a meeting with some of the teachers and parents who took part in the march to discuss how the community and the police can move forward. I invite Mr. Lynch to join us."

Nearly 550 T-shirts reading, "New York's Brightest Supports New York's Finest, #ThankYouNYPD," were bought from printing company Special Tee's in anticipation of the first week of school, company director Vincent Bonomi previously told DNAinfo New York.

Bonomi's shirt was one of several that featured on the Facebook group "UFT Members for NYPD," a board started by paraprofessional Kelly Anne Carbonaro which boasts 149 members who were angered by the union's decision to back the march.

The decision to wear the shirts came in protest of UFT head Michael Mulgrew's public support of Rev. Al Sharpton's march on Aug. 23 to call for justice for the death of Garner, 43.

Garner died July 17 after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a police officer during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. The police union has denied it was a chokehold, but the city's Medical Examiner ruled that it was.