Was Michigan Teacher Wrong to Eject Students for Anti-Gay Remarks?

Filed under: In The News, Bullying

Someone was bullied in a Michigan classroom on Oct. 20. Exactly who was the victim and who was the bully, however, depends on your point of view.

Popular opinion -- at least as it was expressed at a community forum held Nov. 8 -- says Howell High School teacher Jay McDowell was in the right.

McDowell was suspended for a day, his supporters say, because he defended gay and lesbian students against hate speech. However, district officials say he violated the First Amendment rights of students.

Both sides, though, generally agree on the sequence of events that day.

Many Howell High School students came to class wearing purple T-shirts for Spirit Day, a national effort to oppose the bullying of gay and lesbian young people.

However, a female student came to McDowell's class wearing a Confederate flag belt buckle, instead. McDowell told her to remove it. She did so without defiance.

Then a male student asked why she was not allowed to wear a Confederate flag when other students were allowed to wear purple as a political statement. After McDowell explained his position, he asked the student if he had changed his mind.

The student said no. He still believed homosexuality violated his religious beliefs. At that point, McDowell ejected him from the classroom. Another student then spoke in support of the first student. He, too, was ejected.

Kim Root, a spokesperson for the Howell School District, tells ParentDish, officials learned all this after a thorough investigation. The students were not acting angry or belligerent, she says.

Even McDowell himself confirms this in interviews with the Associated Press and other news organizations.

Root says the district investigation was prompted by complaints from parents about how McDowell handled the students. She says officials suspended him after determining he violated district policies that protect students' freedom of speech.

The incident comes on the heels of highly publicized suicides by gay young people, suicides apparently prompted by bullying.

Emotions were running high at the Nov. 15 community forum before the Howell School Board.

Graeme Taylor, a 14-year-old resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., came to speak in support of McDowell.

"When you hear of things like Dr. King's speech that one day he wanted his grandchildren, his posterity, to not be judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character, I hope that one day we, too, can be judged by the content of our character and not by who we love," he says in a video recording of the meeting.

"There is a silent Holocaust out there where an estimated 6 million gay people every year kill themselves," he adds.

That number is a bit inflated.

According to national statistics, an estimated 5 million Americans -- gay and straight -- of all ages attempt suicide every year.

David Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., tells ParentDish McDowell is treading on unstable ground, as case law falls on both sides of the debate.

In Minnesota, a student wore a T-shirt in 2001 proclaiming "Straight Pride" and depicting a man and woman holding hands.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank ruled the school couldn't censor a message on a shirt merely because other students find it offensive, unless the shirt will disrupt the school environment.

However, the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in California upheld the right of a school to ban an anti-gay T-shirt in 2007, ruling that gay and lesbian students are a protected minority.

Hudson tells ParentDish courts are more clear on the wearing of the Confederate flag. It is considered protected expression, he says, unless schools can prove it will inflame racial tensions or otherwise substantially disrupt the school days.

The bottom line is that teachers and administrators can't cherry pick the opinions they will allow to be expressed. The guiding principle on such matters was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1969 case of Tinker vs. Des Moines.

Justices ruled students could wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War because school officials already allowed students to wear political buttons and exercise other forms of expression.

In a video recorded of this week's community forum, McDowell tells the school board the boy he tossed out of class is not bad. In fact, he adds, that's what worries him.

He says he wonders why the kids he ejected felt safe expressing views against homosexuality.

"That's on us," McDowell says. "We have to create an environment in these schools that makes it safe for everyone."

Root says district officials in Howell hope to use this incident as a teachable moment.

"We hope we can move on from this discussion and look at district polices on bullying and harassment," she tells ParentDish.

Educators find themselves on a perpetual tightrope, she says. Certainly gay students need to be protected from bullying, she adds, but people's First Amendment rights also have to be protected.

"There are some things that are obviously hate speech," she tells ParentDish. "Other things are obviously not."

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.