Michigan Teacher Reprimanded in ’Free Speech’ Flap

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday November 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 Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. 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.