Michigan Teacher Reprimanded in ’Free Speech’ Flap

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Nov 2, 2010

A Michigan teacher has been accused of bullying students in an incident sparked by the teacher himself wearing a purple shirt in a gesture of support toward gay students who suffer at the hands of bullies.

Jay McDowell, a teacher at Howell High School in Livingston, Mich., wore the shirt to class on Oct. 20, a day on which supporters were encouraged to wear purple in solidarity with bullied GLBT youth, a Nov. 2 Daily Press & Argus story reported. When a student asked about the garment, McDowell explained its significance, and set off an argument between himself and two students that led to one student being sent out of the classroom.

The argument involved 16-year-old Daniel Glowacki, who, upon hearing about the shirt's significance, protested because McDowell had asked another student to remove a belt buckle depicting the Confederate flag. According to McDowell, when he asked the student to stop wearing the belt buckle, she did so without protest.

But Glowacki did protest. The argument between Glowacki and the teacher grew so heated that McDowell sent Glowacki out of the classroom.

The letter of reprimand read, "You went on to discipline two students who told you they do not accept gays due to their religion. After a failure of getting one student to recant, you engaged in an unsupported snap suspension, rather than allow the student his beliefs."

The letter added, "You also state you routinely do not allow this expression [the Confederate flag] in your classroom because it offends you, and you personally connect this symbol to a list of oppressions and atrocities. You do, however, allow the display of the rainbow flag, to which some of your students have voiced opposition."

McDowell responded in his own statement that there are no rainbow flags in his classroom--only the American flag, the newspaper article reported. Moreover, McDowell noted that restrictions on the Confederate flag were not limited to his own classroom: "the district has for the last year asked students to remove Confederate flags that have flown from the back of cars and trucks in the school parking lot," McDowell's statement said. "The reprimand states that the wearing of the Confederate flag and the statement, 'I don't accept gays,' did not cause a substantial disruption to the educational process and, therefore, I violated the students' First Amendment rights.

"I disagree," the statement from McDowell went on. "I believe any symbol or speech that can cause a student to sit in fear in the classroom whether or not there is an outward show of that fear is by its very nature a disruption to the educational process." McDowell went on to say that he had abided by school district policies and emphasized that he did not punish the student for his religious beliefs or political opinions, but rather sent him out of the room for disruptive behavior.

The school district did not waver. "These violations created adverse reactions, were not in the best interests of your students, and will not be tolerated," district officials told McDowell, who has been ordered to attend a First Amendment Rights training and punished with a one-day unpaid suspension.

"The Howell Education Association is dismayed that administrators have chosen to suspend and reprimand a teacher for upholding Howell High School's very mission statement," stated the teachers' union. "We, the Howell Education Association, are proud that Mr. McDowell has the moral fiber and integrity to stand up to intolerant speech, as well as symbols of hate in our community and in our classroom."

"The student was speaking out on being offended by the gay and lesbian lifestyle because it's against his religion," Howell Public Schools Superintendent Ron Wilson said on Oct. 28, the newspaper reported on Oct. 29. "The teacher said that wasn't appropriate."

Added Wilson, "All the student was doing was voicing an opinion. The same thing would have been done had the student been on the other side. As superintendent, it's my responsibility to foster fair, respectful treatment of all staff and students, and the teacher didn't do that."

Wilson went on to say that several parents had emailed him to claim that their children had been harassed at school for not wearing purple shirts. Wilson suggested that those alleged incidents of harassment were examples of bullying.

Meantime, Glowacki sought to set the record straight after rumors started up that he was prejudiced against gays, the Daily Press & Argus reported in an Oct. 28 follow-up article.
"I don't really care what people think, but I don't want people to think I'm against gays," the young man told the press. "That's just not true."

The young man's mother met with McDowell on the day the argument took place in what the article reported was a "productive talk," but even so she pulled her son our of McDowell's class and now says she is considering hiring a lawyer. "The things people have been saying online about my son have been terrible," said Glowacki's mother, Sandy. "My son is being bullied. This is the United States of America. Just because someone has a different opinion doesn't mean they're a bad person." Added the student's mother, "My son is not a bigot. He has a very diverse group of friends that includes some gays. If a gay student was being picked on in class, he'd stick up for them."

Student's Eye View

According to Glowacki, he disputed McDowell's instruction to the classmate who wore the Confederate belt buckle by pointing out that several students, like McDowell, were wearing purple clothing. The purple garments and the belt buckle were both examples of political expression. However, Glowacki said, the teacher told him that the Confederate flag stood for racist violence. Glowacki says that McDowell then told the student that if he had something against gays, he could leave.

"I never said I was against gays, but I did leave the class," said the young man. "I got a referral and had to talk to the assistant principal, but that was it." The article explained that a "referral" is a citation for misconduct and goes into a student's permanent file. Glowacki's referral was later expunged from his record.

In Oregon, a student teacher was pulled out of a school last month for explaining that he was not married because legally he and his same-sex partner are not allowed to wed.

23-year-old Seth Stambaugh was student teaching in the town of Beaverton, Ore., a town seven miles west of Portland, when he was abruptly transferred to a school in Portland after answering questions from one his fourth-grade students, reported local TV news station KGW on Oct. 18.

Stambaugh was sent to teach at a school in Portland, outside of the Beaverton school district. The student teacher's advisers at Lewis & Clark College were reportedly asked by the school district to pull Stambaugh out of Sexton Mountain Elementary and send him elsewhere.

"The student asked me if I was married," Stambaugh told the news station. "I responded, 'No.' He asked, 'Why?' I said it was illegal for me to get married. I said, 'It's because I want to marry a man.' "

Stambaugh was reassigned shortly after that Sept. 10 conversation, and was not told the reason--though he thinks he knows why. "I felt extremely hurt and discriminated against," Stambaugh told KGW. "Everyone in the school is free to talk about their marital status as long as they are heterosexual."

The head of the Beaverton Education Association, David Wilkinson, agreed. "As a heterosexual male, I can talk about my wife and our children," Wilkinson told the Portland Tribune. "Our GLBT members have been shown that they are not at liberty to discuss their personal lives in the same way."

Added Wilkinson, "I have been contacted by many teachers who are deeply concerned about their vulnerability in light of this incident... [which] has brought a bright light to the lack of clarity around what is allegedly age-appropriate or reasonable to discuss with students."

A statement from the Beaverton School District seemed to confirm that his disclosure to the student was the cause of Stambaugh's dismissal from Sexton Mountain Elementary. "We understand this action has resulted in the student teacher alleging discrimination," the school district's statement said. "The concerns were about professional judgment and age appropriateness. While the details of this issue remain confidential, the district's policy and practice is non-discrimination."

Student teachers are not employees of the school district, but rather are interns. As such, they are not protected by district non-discrimination policies or by state laws regarding discrimination in the workplace.

"I think that 4th graders know that gays exist," Stambaugh said. "They hear it on the playgrounds. To say this guy, meaning me, came out and should disappear sends a negative [message] to a gay child who could be questioning their own sexuality."

At least some parents agreed. "I don't think anybody should be fired for giving a well though-out articulate answer to a kids' question," said one father, Mike Speer. However, other parents seem to have had reservations about the fact that gays exist being acknowledged in a fourth-grade classroom; it was a parent's complaint that triggered Stambaugh's dismissal, media sources said.

The forthright reply to the student's query was only one of two complaints leveled at Stambaugh: the same parent lodged a complaint about the student teacher's "inappropriate" manner of dress, "which consisted of cardigan sweaters, neatly pressed slacks and bow ties," noted educator and Oregon Live guest columnist Marcia Klotz in an Oct. 17 op-ed. "We all know what kind of people dress like that," added Klotz.

"Are 9-year-olds mature enough to understand the issue of same-sex marriage?" Klotz, a Portland State University assistant professor of English, wondered. "Maybe, maybe not. But if they are old enough to worry their parents about their exposure to the rather subtle fashion clues of a bow tie and cardigan, they must be quite savvy indeed."

Klotz went on to question whether lying to the student would have been morally preferable. "This might all seem rather silly if the stakes weren't so high,' she wrote. "Sexual shame kills, as the recent rash of lesbian and gay suicides across the country attests. Imagine a child in that class, one who may not have a name yet for certain stirrings he is dimly becoming aware of, which already shame and humiliate him. What might it mean for such a child, a few years down the road, to look back on that teacher, who was brave enough to answer honestly when the students put their curious question to him?

"And what does it mean when that very teacher is taken out of the class--for the crime of not being ashamed enough?" Klotz added.

Stambaugh was eventually allowed to return to his original student teaching assignment.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2010-11-15 12:30:01

    WOW. Real journalism. As opposed to the usual cut-and-paste "viral" (as in disease-like) presence this story is taking-on VIA the internet. THANK YOU.

  • , 2010-11-15 13:43:22

    A 2nd thank you Kilian Melloy for giving the details of this story. You’re a better journalist than most. I hate hearing news outlets use, "anti-gay" as a description as if gay’s the baseline and opposition to it should be defined in terms of gayness. That’s a specific example but I disrespect all news outlets that report conclusions rather than the story. I don’t want to hear the teacher, "supported the LBT community" I want to hear what specifically the teacher did. In this case it’s clear the teacher used the classroom to indoctrinate students in his beliefs. It’s silly that anyone should be surprised by such a situation because the purpose of schools is to raise citizens children in the state’s doctrine. If parents want to instill their own virtues into their children they shouldn’t leave them in the care of schools.

  • , 2010-11-15 13:50:49

    As always this news story has an agenda. A second unrelated story about Stambaugh is tacked on to give the impression queers are being singled-out and persecuted by the school system. Bullshit. I’m sure it varies down to the individual school but from HS to college the schools I’ve been in encouraged buggery greatly.

  • , 2010-11-15 21:19:56

    "I believe any symbol or speech that can cause a student to sit in fear in the classroom whether or not there is an outward show of that fear is by its very nature a disruption to the educational process." What next? Your big hair makes me uncomfortable, we should outlaw big hair? People will always have things in all of life that are going to be fearful. I can’t make all streets one-way because I’m fearful of oncoming traffic. Wake up people, deal with your fears! The kids all have the same first amendment rights.

  • Kent Joseph, 2010-11-16 07:33:45

    They are queer and they are here. Get use to it people. It always fascinates me to when I hear from people, such as the ones above, and although articulate, they are so presumptuous as to believe they hold the moral high ground because they are heterosexual. Gay teachers, which I have taught side-by-side with for years, are not indoctrinating students into the gay lifestyle any more than the Jewish teachers are trying to convert students to Judaism or the single female teachers are trying to convert students into becoming lonely spinster cat-ladies. I do not extol the virtues of being a heterosexual male, although if a student asked me if I was married and/or had kids I would tell them yes, without fear of repercussions. Now does my stance on the LGBT community make me a bleeding-heart liberal. I hope not. I just prefer to treat EVERYONE with respect. Pure and simple.

  • , 2010-11-16 07:54:09

    I’m the original post-er. I’m also NOT heterosexual. I’m also from Michigan, and am familiar with the communities in question, having lived in one for 6 years. There is a culture of liberal whitewashing going on as LGBTQ people become more and more visible. Politicians want our votes and marketers want our money, and some LGBTQ people are so desperate for acceptance (I’m looking at you, Human Rights Campaign) that they are willing to be complicit in the sweeping under the rug of all nuance and complexity in our stories to fit them into the evening news. I REFUSE to take part in this commodification of my identity. Peoples’ agendas are all over the way this story is being told; some people on Facebook have even started insinuating that the person wore the belt-buckle as a deliberate reaction to the purple shirts! Conjecture much! People WANT a culture-war when what this country need is dialogue. And the teacher pandered to that sentiment. This is one such story that is much more complex than most of the American audience is willing to consider; do you remember high school? The frustration? The teachers? It’s awful, gay or straight. This teacher should have ENGAGED this child (that’s right, A CHILD), not rejected him. I’m queer, I’m independent, I own guns, I vote, and I’m w/ the student.

  • , 2010-11-17 13:18:37

    "I believe any symbol or speech that can cause a student to sit in fear in the classroom whether or not there is an outward show of that fear is by its very nature a disruption to the educational process." jay mcdowell is a disruption to the educational process rather than promote dialogue and take the opportunity to teach, he uses fear and intimidation promote his own agenda. America is a melting pot of opinions. The great think about being in America IS WE ARE FORCED TO AGREE WITH OTHER. Dissenting voices is key to American and central to the Form of Gov. we have in America. I do not support bullying of any kind, I do not support bullying towards any one, jay mcdowell is a bully. he showed how poor of a teacher his is by passing up chance to discuss freedom of speech and respect despite differences in opinion. Thank goodness he was suspended. Maybe know student can begin to realize we America is about ... the right to freely express an opinion or belief with fear of stalin or moa stepping in to "re-educate".

  • , 2010-11-27 19:42:54

    America should be a place to freely express oneself! But not if it is a racist or homophobic remark...have you learned anything from your history?

  • , 2010-11-30 19:46:26

    "America should be a place to freely express oneself! But not if it is a racist or homophobic remark...have you learned anything from your history?" Are you saying the 1st amendment only applies when I agree with you?

  • , 2010-12-01 22:38:41

    I have been from web site to web site and article to article and no matter where it is written or who wrote it, the message is the same and doesn’t include the facts. The problem is that what happened in that class room and why the teacher was suspended never seems to be come out in the articles. This is documented though rarely reported, so you nay Sayers are free to do your own research. First, the teacher went off curriculum by showing a movie that had nothing to do with economics without permission to do so. The Child (student) asked a valid question (it is a class room after all) that the teacher made public (i.e. the belt buckle) because he, the teacher chose to not talk to the girl in private. He then proceeded to tell his students what he believed the flag represented, instead of stating that it was school policy, if in fact it is. He then called out the questioning student by point plank asking him if he supported gays. And because the teacher didn’t like the answer, told him to leave his class if he felt that way. No gay or homophobic remarks were made by the student. Even the teacher has confirmed this fact when he appeared on Channel 4. The teacher also told the child that if he was really Catholic he would be in a Catholic school. The statements from 12 of the students present in class that day confirm what Daniel said happened. It was told by the students that it was in fact the teacher that was argumentative. The teacher yelled out his class room door at the students as they walked down the hall that they were bigots and racists. He then slammed the door, went to the front on the room, called the office and in front of the whole class, said he wanted the students out of his class. And if that wasn’t enough, another brave student asked "what about freedom of speech" and the teachers reply was "not in my class". So my question now as a parent is, are we suppose to tell our children to lie when asked a question that may not be popular with the person asking the question? Do I tell my children that "you don’t want to have to go through what that Daniel kid had to go through because he told what he believed"? People, this is the person that you want to make a hero. This is definitely not my kind of hero. I don’t know if this teacher needs more training or a longer suspension but he is the one that went on his facebook page and whined about his suspension. Obviously not telling the whole story if his appearances on MSNBC is any indication. He is the one that continued to not clarify all the facts which has perpetrated a media frenzy and a community’s nightmare.

  • , 2010-12-01 23:08:27

    @Anonymous, 2010-12-01 22:38:41 You took the words right out of my head. Thank you! I would like to know how an Anti Bullying issue became a Gay Rights issue only? Mr. McDowell didn’t seem to go off about the Confederate Flag like he did this. Then because Daniel Glowacki doesn’t agree with him, he in turn bullies the child? Good for the School Board!! No child of mine will ever be in this mans classroom.

  • , 2010-12-02 13:51:57

    Thanks for doing that "investigative reporting". I agree with you. I thought the teacher was out of line from the start and you confirmed for me it again!

  • , 2013-02-27 14:43:57

    I would just like to say i go to howell high school and i am a lesbian ive been with the same girl for 3 years. I know Mr. McDowell and i know that boy. They boy pushed a friend of mine down the stairs when he came out for being gay my friend broke his neck and nothing was done. There is alot of bullying that goes on in Howell High School. Not just mental abuse but physical abuse and anytime someone wrotes a complant it seems to just be thrown away the school does not care and its hard to learn and do good in a school where you have to be worryed if you will be pushed down the stairs or not. I for one am scared for my life sometimes people have threaten to kill me and have told me i should kill my self for being gay its very unfair. I think bullying should be looked at more seriously and the GSA needs to be inforced.

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