A controversy in a Michigan middle school has been resolved, but questions still remain over why a performing arts teacher was severely disciplined after allowing a student to play a marriage equality song in her classroom. The teacher, Susan Johnson, from Centennial Middle School, allowed the song after checking with the student to be sure it fit within the guidelines of the school district. However, the song offended at least one classmate, whose complaint eventually led to the teacher’s disciplinary action. Was the teacher merely defending a student’s freedom of speech, or was she in violation of district policy? The answer to that question appears to depend on who you ask.
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“Same Love” Subject of Controversy
According to CBS Detroit, Johnson allowed a student in one of her eighth-grade performing arts classes to play the song “Same Love” by rapper Macklemore during class. Prior to granting permission, Johnson asked the student if the song contained any inappropriate language or references to violence. The student responded that it did not. In fact, “Same Love” is a song about marriage equality, depicting the life of a gay man from beginning to end. Some of the lyrics in the song include:
“Can’t change, even if I tried…”
“No freedom ‘til we’re equal…”
“We become so numb to what we’re saying…”
“If I was gay, I would think hip hop hates me…”
In addition to the pro-gay message, the song also includes lyrics regarding the church and religion, including:
“If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed…”
“That holy water that you soak in is poisoned…”
Johnson played the song at the request of her student. However, another student in the class was offended by the lyrics and reported the situation to school administrators. The principal and vice-principal then came back to Johnson with the news: she had been suspended for three days for allowing the song in her classroom. Two of those days would be without pay.
The disciplinary procedure, according to Michigan Radio, was due to the fact that Johnson did not submit the appropriate form and get permission before playing the song in class. District officials also stated that the song had questionable content regarding sex, religion and politics. The song also contained one sexual slur. The district actually sent out a press release explaining the reasons for Johnson’s suspension, amid the outcry that subsequently ensued.
This video looks at the issue of students' rights to free speech.
In her defense, Johnson was reported on Michigan Radio as saying, “I’m very disappointed in the bias, the bigotry that I feel they’re really hiding behind.” Johnson also told the radio that she never meant to harm any of her students by allowing the song to be played – in fact, just the opposite.
“I really love my kids and I never want to hurt them, but I also know there’s a lot of bullying and there’s a lot of gay bashing and racial issues going on in our country and I want the kids to feel comfortable in my class no matter who they are.”
A number of people came to Johnson’s defense after the issue was made public, including Macklemore himself. The rapper spoke to MTV News about the incident, saying he believed the suspension handed down to Johnson was “completely out of line and unjust.” However, Macklemore also said these types of incidents could be used as opportunities as well.
“I think it’s important for moments like these to be exposed and for us to pay attention and respond,” Macklemore was reported as saying at MTV’s website.
“It’s clear that Ms. Johnson felt that bullying and ‘gay-bashing’ were issues that needed to be addressed, and by doing so, was punished,” Macklemore added. He also explained that the song was originally written to promote dialogue about marriage equality that would lead to understanding and empathy.
An op-ed piece in the New Civil Rights Movement also supported Johnson’s decision to allow the song to be played in class. The article suggested that Johnson may have been responding to a student who was gay, confused, or simply straight and searching for answers. However, that student may now be labeled as the one that got Johnson suspended if his name ever comes out in the press. The action, according to the publication, may have also set back additional conversations that could have been initiated by students in similar situations at the school.
This video looks at students' first amendment rights in school.
Since the protests over Johnson’s suspension, the school district decided to overturn the disciplinary action. Johnson was able to return to her classroom, and she was paid for all of the days of her suspension.
“I am willing not to uphold the suspension, but the violation of the district practice regarding web-based clips and our expectations for instructions previewing materials under this will remain in writing,” William Pearson, the superintendent for South Lyon’s Centennial Middle School, where Johnson works, was quoted as saying in the Huffington Post.
Johnson has said that she is happy to return to work, especially to see her students and get all of them back to their routine. However, she explained the suspension and subsequent actions have been stressful. Her sister, Maggie Lourdes, is also an attorney who represented Johnson during the events. Lourdes told CBS Detroit that Johnson has no intention of filing a lawsuit against the school district for the actions against her at this time. However, if the school decides to retaliate against Johnson in any way, Lourdes warned that a lawsuit could be filed in the future.
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