DETROIT — High school economics teacher Jay McDowell says he didn't like where the discussion was going after a student told his classmates he didn't "accept gays," so McDowell kicked the boy out of class for a day.
In return, the teacher was kicked out of Howell High School in Michigan for a day — suspended without pay for violating the student's free speech rights.
The incident has sparked intense debate in Howell, about 45 miles northwest of Detroit, over defending civil rights without trampling the U.S. constitution's right to free speech. It's gained far wider attention since a local newspaper released video of a 14-year-old gay student from another city defending McDowell at a Howell school board meeting.
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 whether he also could leave because he also doesn't accept gays.
"The classroom discussion was heading in a direction I didn't want it to head," McDowell said.
McDowell soon received a reprimand letter from the district that said his actions violated the students' free speech rights as well as school policy. It also said he "purposefully initiated a controversial issue" by the wearing the T-shirt featuring the anti-gay bullying message.
"I thought it was a really great, teachable moment," McDowell said of his decision to remove the student from class.
Graeme Taylor is among those who agree. The 14-year-old, who does not go to Howell schools, says he is gay and attended a recent school board meeting to praise a teacher who "finally stood up and said something."
"I've been in classrooms where children have said the worst things," the boy told the board. "The kinds of things that drove me to a suicide attempt when I was 9 years old."
Video of Graeme's comments had been viewed on YouTube more than 13,000 times as of Monday evening, when Howell schools convened a community diversity forum that district spokeswoman Kim Root said was meant to be a step forward.
"We can learn some things from this episode," she said, adding the district hoped to receive recommendations from the public to improve "the tolerance of the district and enhance diversity efforts we already have in place."
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Legal Project, credits McDowell for trying to create a "welcoming environment for all students." But Kaplan said the "teachable moment" would have come if the students stayed in the classroom.
"We believe, based on those statements — as offensive and upsetting as they were — they were protected speech," Kaplan said. "The only way we're going to create a better environment in schools is to start talking about this."
Kaplan said Howell schools have expressed interest in accepting the ACLU's offer to provide in-person training to students, faculty, and staff. He said such training could provide a better understanding of what can be said and done.
McDowell has filed a complaint against the district over the discipline he received, but said Monday he primarily wants to "force the school to look at itself."
"I want to force adults to look at what situation we've created," he said. "I would really like us to be more aggressive in our policing of harassing and bullying."
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