Crackdown on anti-gay remark earns teacher a suspension

The limits of free speech vs. the acceptance of gay students is a battle on display in Michigan this week.

The Associated Press reports that a teacher threw a boy out of his class after he said he doesn’t accept gays. The school suspended the teacher.

On Oct. 20, McDowell told a student in his classroom to remove a belt buckle with the Confederate Flag, the symbol of the southern confederacy that seceded from the United States over slavery, kicking off the Civil War in the 1860s.

She complied, but it prompted a question from a boy about how the flag differs from the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride for the gay community.

“I explained the difference between the flags, and he said, ‘I don’t accept gays,”’ said McDowell, 42, who was wearing a shirt with an anti-gay bullying message.

McDowell said he told the student he couldn’t say that in class.

“And he said, ‘Why? I don’t accept gays. It’s against my religion.’ I reiterated that it’s not appropriate to say something like that in class,” McDowell said Monday.

McDowell said he sent the boy out of the room for a one-day class suspension. Another boy asked if he also could leave because he also didn’t accept gays.

“The classroom discussion was heading in a direction I didn’t want it to head,” McDowell said.

At a school board meeting in Howell, Michigan last night, 14-year-old Graeme Taylor came to the teacher’s defense.

For the record, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support the student’s claim that “6 million gay people kill themselves every year.” In the latest year for which statistics are readily available, 34,598 people in the United States killed themselves. They all weren’t gay.

Another student said the First Amendment was being improperly used to harbor “hate speech.”

The school board said it will create an anti-bullying policy.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Verbal communication is about tone, volume, and lastly, the words used.. If the student was respectful and civil in stating his position, the teacher was out of line in removing him from class. If the student was sarcastic or otherwise aggressive, the removal was appropriate.

  • Sara Hurley

    Jim, this line of thinking has got to stop.

    The research shows that hostile school climate is correlated with increase in suicidal behavior and ideation, truancy, academic performance decline, and drug and alcohol use in GLBT and questioning teens.

    Allowing people to question whether or not you are “sinful” – whether they say it in a moderated tone or while they’re pushing your head in the toilet – allows a hostile climate to continue.

    There is no nice way of saying that you don’t think gay people should exist, and the gay people who do are inherently bad. Period. Just by allowing that, you are alienating GLBTQ students and driving them into severely problematic behaviors.

  • Heather

    Patterns matter, too. What ELSE has the kid said in class that might be derogatory to other students?

  • Jim Shapiro

    Sara, I agree that prejudice based on gender/sexual tendencies and preferences should be eliminated. The question is to how best make those necessary societal changes. If in fact the student who stated his prejudice did so in a civil manner, the teacher should have used it as a learning opportunity and encouraged CIVIL debate over an undeniably contentious issue. Sadly, much of homophobia is the result of religious-based ignorance. “Sin” is the operative term used in that paradigm to express disapproval. You want hostility? Nothing like stifling the right of someone to appropriately express their opinion to create a hostile environment. The key word of course being “appropriately.” For better or worse, the teacher’s legal position would be stronger if he censured the student for prosletyzing his religious beliefs in a public school. Heather, point well taken regarding the previous history of the kid.

  • Noelle

    I was thinking the same thing as Jim – that, depending on the circumstances, it could have been a valuable learning experience for the kids to have an open discussion about how the gay rights issue compares with historical contentions over slavery and civil rights. Unless the kid had a strong attitude when voicing his opinions, that might have been a more diplomatic approach.

    On the other hand, I think it was totally out of line to suspend the teacher without pay.