A probe of alleged verbal and physical abuse by a Long Beach teacher has swept up an improbable secondary character: the author whose critique sparked the furor over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt.
Los Angeles police are investigating allegations that a business teacher at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Libby Huff, called one of her students the N-word, pulled students’ hair, yanked their ears, and threw pencils at them. The school district placed her on leave in January, and she returned in early February, only to be placed on administrative leave again pending a second investigation as more accusations surfaced.
Some students have claimed retaliation for coming forward to speak to police, though the school district has disputed those allegations. Now Myriam Gurba, a Mexican-American novelist and AP Psychology teacher at Long Beach Polytechnic, has also been placed on administrative leave for tweeting about the inquiry. Security staff, an armed police officer, and school administrators escorted her from school Friday “perp walk style,” she told The Daily Beast.
Gurba, who has written several books and essays, shot to national prominence in December when she ignited a wide-ranging controversy over American Dirt with her scathing takedown of its representation of Latinos and the migrant experience.
“HELP,” she tweeted Wednesday. “Scary things are happening at Poly. During last period, campus security officers arrived in waves and ordered students to take their belongings w them. They told the kids that the reason they were being escorted away is confidential. They took ONLY Black & Brown students.”
An Instagram video Gurba posted showed her crying as she said, “Apparently if I hurt kids, I’m fine to be on campus, but if I try to protect them, I’m a criminal.”
“Once the American Dirt controversy broke, I noticed there was a change towards me when it came to my treatment by mostly white teachers. Many stopped saying hello to me or making eye contact,” she told The Daily Beast on Saturday.
She did not drive herself to school that day, so she sat on the curb, she said. As Gurba spoke to a visiting former student there, she said, another teacher approached her, told her to “be quiet,” and informed her that her suspension would require her silence.
American Dirt, which tells the story of a Mexican mother whose husband is murdered by cartels and who flees to America with her son, has enjoyed massive success—a seven-figure advance, an Oprah’s Book Club pick, a film deal—and become a bestseller. Despite the sky-high sales, the book has been dogged by claims of cultural appropriation for its representation of Latinos and the migrant experience.
Author Jeanine Cummins is not Latina. A press release promoting the book initially said she married an undocumented immigrant but did not disclose that he was from Ireland. Cummins, who is Irish-American, said she did hundreds of hours of research and interviews for the book but critics have said it simplifies and glosses over the reality of immigration. The novel’s author and publisher apologized for its publicity rollout and cancelled a planned book tour.
“If I'm so ‘disruptive,’ as they said, I find it strange they wait until Friday afternoon when my instructional time is over. The district got its money’s worth,” she said.
The school district confirmed her leave to the LA Times but did not provide a reason. Gurba said she's spoken to multiple lawyers about her suspension and removal but doesn't know what her next step will be.
She felt the way students were being questioned in the abuse inquiry “implicitly criminalized them” and that parents were not informed their children were being questioned.
“The kids who spoke out against the racist teacher are staying home from school because they are SICK with anxiety. SICK,” Gurba tweeted. She said the interviews were done “Central Park 5-style.”
Students had come to her with stories of Huff's abuse before, she told The Daily Beast, including the black student who said that Huff called him the N-word in December. “He was in her classroom, he asked a question, and she responded, ‘Don’t fuck with me, it’s Christmas, get out of here, N word,’” she said.
Gurba also claimed that, in a discussion of female students’ sexual harassment complaints between herself and Huff, the latter referred to the complaining students as “whores.” Gurba began to suspect that Huff was biased against the students because they were not white. Libby Huff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Detectives intimidated them,” she wrote. Fellow authors have come to her defense on Twitter, calling LBUSD’s actions “shameful and infuriating.” She also tweeted text messages of support she said came from former students.
Gurba also raised unconfirmed allegations that another Long Beach Unified teacher had raped and physical assaulted her Saturday morning on Twitter. She came forward now, she said, to show how the Long Beach Polytechnic administration had dealt with abuse in the past. She reported the allegations to her superiors and they had not acted on them, she said. “I would rather have my dignity than a job,” she tweeted.