A young gay student was one of a number of supporters who stuck up for an embattled schoolteacher in Michigan during a Nov. 8 Board of Education meeting.
The teacher, Jay McDowell, teaches economics at Howell High School, in Howell, Mich. A Nov. 9 MSNBC article recounted that on Oct. 20, a day when supporters nationwide wore purple to commemorate gay teens who had killed themselves after being subjected to anti-gay bullying, McDowell asked a student to remove a Confederate flag belt buckle. Although the student complied without protest, another student, Daniel Glowacki, 16, interjected and asked why the student with the belt buckle should be required to take off the Confederate flag buckle when other students were allowed to wear purple shirts.
According to media accounts, a heated exchange ensued, which Glowacki stating that he was a Christian and did not support the gay "lifestyle." McDowell told Glowacki to leave the classroom. But administrators subjected McDowell to punitive measures, sparking a controversy over whether McDowell followed school district policy regarding the disciplining of students and whether he trampled Glowacki’s First Amendment rights.
"It was a teachable moment and there could have been a dialogue rather than ejecting two students from class," Ron Wilson, the school superintendent, told MSNBC, noting that Glowacki had voiced his objection respectfully and without resorting to anti-gay epithets.
The board meeting brought people from "across the state," the article said, many of them supportive of McDowell, but others--such as Glowacki’s aunt, T.J. Conray--supportive of Glowacki.
A number of individuals addressed the board, but one of the most remarkable comments came from a gay student. "I myself am gay, and I am a young person," 14-year-old Graham Taylor told the meeting. "This teacher, whom I fully support, finally stood up and said something," Taylor said of McDowell. "I have been in rooms, in classes, where children have said the worst kind of things, the kinds of things that helped derive me to a suicide attempt when I was only nine years old. These are things that hurt a lot."
Taylor, who lives in Ann Arbor, told the board that McDowell "did an amazing thing. He did something that’s inspired a lot of people. And whenever, ever, I have a teacher stand up like me for that, they change in my eyes. I support Jay McDowell," Taylor concluded.
Taylor referenced a perception that Howell had served as a base of operations for the Ku Klux Klan in the past. However, the board noted in its response to comments, that was not true: a KKK Grand Wizard had convened rallies in another town to the north, Cohoctah Township, reported the Daily Press & Argus on Nov. 9.
McDowell received a brief suspension and a letter of reprimand that read in part, "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. 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," McDowell’s statement continued. "I disagree. 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.