“Spirit Day” occurred on October 20th and involved young people wearing commemorative colors or clothing to celebrate the lives of a number of teens who recently committed suicide, a subversive incident took place at Howell High School. A teacher, Jay McDowell, ejected two students from his economics class after an argument about another student wearing a belt buckle featuring the Confederate flag. The argument caused the two students to make anti-gay remarks. McDowell was subsequently suspended from teaching for a day without pay, and further action is pending. The punishment prompted the following response at a recent school board meeting made by student Graeme Taylor, a sincere and poignant statement that speaks volumes as to why these sorts of conflicts and the reactions to them have a meaningful impact on a larger community than just those immediately involved.
McDowell has also been instructed to follow seven directives, which include ceasing from engaging in the promotion of his personal social issues and ceasing from engaging in the baiting of students over controversial issues. He has filed a grievance with the school district to have the discipline overturned, stating the reprimand is full of inaccuracies and falsehoods.
This particular case induces serious, thought-provoking analysis on what exactly is expected of a teacher in any instance similar to what occurred. Teachers are constantly forced to tread on the fine line between acting on behalf of students who are disparaged and offended by hateful remarks with the restrictions facing someone in authority against enforcing censorship. In case a moral conscience isn’t enough, a series of court cases make clear what someone responsible for making the decision ought to do, starting with a landmark case that occurred over 40 years ago. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a case in which a student protesting the Vietnam War chose to wear a black armband to school after the school’s administration enforced a policy banning the armbands. The court, of course, ruled famously for the students, stating that school officials do not have absolute authority over their students. However, an important caveat was also included in the ruling; conduct that "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech." In the ensuing Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, the majority opinion stated that schools have a responsibility to instill students with “habits and manners of civility as values.” When undermining this responsibility, students’ free speech rights are justly limited.
If an LGBT student had been looking on while this situation took place, and if the comments were left untouched, the student would have received a prodigious chink in a presumably-fragile armor. Not only is hateful rhetoric put forth, but nothing is done to prevent or stop it by peers or figures in authority, effectively fostering feelings of isolation and abandonment for the youthful onlooker. It’s important to allow teachers to use their tried and capable judgment in determining when it is necessary to step in and say “enough,” and if we discipline them for enacting this right, we’re taking away the hero that every Graeme Taylor venerates, and in effect risking the possibility of losing some of our most valued members of society who judge not on the color of our skin or who we love, but on the content of our character.
To see Graeme's moving speech to the Howell school board, click here.
This post was written by Eric VanDreason, the newest edition to PFLAG National’s Policy Team. To learn more about Eric and his role at the National Office, please visit our staff page here.