Most educators and parents would agree that school needs to be a safe place if children are to successfully learn. However, what that safe place looks like has become a topic of controversy for one Michigan school district. On the one hand, a teacher is being applauded for standing up for homosexual students. On the other hand, that same teacher is being accused of bullying students who voiced their own views of anti-homosexuality based on their religion. Which stand is correct? The verdict is still out.
The Howell Controversy
In a high school about 45 miles northwest of Detroit, a school teacher asked one of his economics students to remove a belt buckle that featured the Confederate flag. The teacher, Jay McDowell, explained that the symbol could be offensive to some of the students in the class. The student readily complied with the request, but the exchange sparked a discussion among other students and the teacher that resulted in two students being asked to leave the classroom, according to a report at Black Christian News.
The first student, 16-year-old Daniel Glowacki, asked McDowell to explain the difference between the confederate flag and the rainbow flag that serves as a symbol of pride for the gay community. (At the time, McDowell was wearing a t-shirt with an anti-gay bullying message.) When McDowell explained the difference, Glowacki responded with, "I don't accept gays." Glowacki went on to explain that homosexuality goes against his Catholic religion, according to 6 News. When McDowell told Glowacki he could leave the classroom, another student raised his hand and asked to leave for the same reason.
This video reports on free speech rules.
Violation of First Amendment Rights?
Shortly after the incident, McDowell received a reprimand from the district, saying that his actions violated the student's first amendment rights of free speech. McDowell was given a one-day suspension without pay. The teacher's union for the district, of which McDowell is the president, has filed a grievance against the school district for the disciplinary action. A hearing will be scheduled soon to hear both sides of the case.
At a public forum on bullying held by Howell Public Schools last week, McDowell told the crowd of parents, teachers, and students, "We have to create an environment in these schools that makes it safe for everyone. Kids who sit in fear do not learn." However, some parents felt that McDowell was the one bullying by disciplining kids for simply expressing their views.
Ronald Wilson, Howell Schools superintendent, told News 6 that McDowell "violated board policy" in dismissing a student who "disagreed with him." He added that because McDowell violated the student's right to free speech in the classroom, the district had no plans to reverse his suspension.
This video offers another look at students' free speech rights.
Support for McDowell
On the other side of the spectrum, many students, parents, and educators have come out in support of McDowell. Graeme Taylor, an openly gay teen from Pioneer High School in the Ann Arbor area, recently went on the Ellen DeGeneres Show to share his own experiences after speaking before the Howell school board. Taylor talked about he attempted suicide at the age of nine because he was afraid of the bullying because of his sexuality, according to a report at AnnArbor.com.
However, some of the support for McDowell has become a form of bullying as well. The Livingston Daily reports that emails in support of McDowell have been turned over to police because of their threatening nature. Howell Superintendent Ron Wilson said the district has received more than 1,000 emails since McDowell was suspended – from people outside the Howell community. Some of the emails have featured foul language that was perceived as threatening by some of the recipients.
Matt and Phil Letten, Howell residents who organized the Support Jay McDowell group, have demanded that McDowell's suspension be rescinded and his pay reinstated. While they do not condone the actions of some that have joined their cause, they do believe that it is a cause worth fighting for.
This video discusses a court opinion on students' first amendment rights.
"The district is clearly attempting to address bullying going forward; however, we cannot move forward without fully addressing the district's recent mistakes with regard to the discipline of Mr. McDowell," Matt Letten told Livingston Daily.
As the battle continues in Howell, the question still remains as to whether students have a first amendment right to oppose a certain segment of the population. Others believe that placing a priority on such a controversy takes the focus off what is really important in public education. Howell resident Sherry Hargrove told LSJ.com, "Put the focus back on math, reading, and science and get the education back up front."
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