Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Teachable Moment" Or Infringement Of Rights?

An old friend of mine sent me an article recently from NPR, "Teacher Suspended After Stopping Anti-Gay Talk." My friend was a high school teacher for many years (and now teaches on the community college level), so naturally, this would pique her interest. Mine, too.

But the headline is a bit misleading, I think. It makes it sound like a kid was bullying by using homophobic language. That was not the case:
[snip] 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 if he also could leave because he also didn'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. [snip]

I have a few problems with the way the teacher handled this situation. It did not seem to me that the young man was gay-bullying, but giving his religious belief, which he is allowed to have, much as I (and apparently, the teacher) disagree with him. As long as he was not bashing anyone, that is. A number of mainstream religions teach that homosexuality is a sin, and a number still do not ordain LGBT people. That this student holds such a religious belief is his right, as long as he does not take it out on anyone. Again, much as I disagree with that religious belief, the student has the right to his beliefs.

I think the more "teachable moment" would have been to keep him in the classroom. Maybe discuss how, even if our religious beliefs differ, we can, and should, treat people with respect, and stand up for "the least of these," to couch it in language the young man may have understood. It was a perfect opportunity to discuss the bullying that has been occurring in our school across the country, and how it isn't just against gay kids, but "nerds," small kids, etc. That was the teachable moment in my mind.

I think the t-shirt the teacher wore was provocative, even if it was in support of ending the recent bullying cases making the headlines. Given that he was clearly stating a position, he should have expected that some people might have taken umbrage with it. And, he should have been willing to engage, and really TEACH, rather than dismiss.

And I think this was a discussion more suited to a Social Studies class than an Economics class. While I appreciate - very much - the teacher's intent, he infringed upon the young man's rights by, well, being intolerant of the student's beliefs. In his attempt to stop bullying, he, in essence, bullied this kid. Since the teacher had the power, he was able to toss out someone with whom he disagreed rather than have a real discussion.

That is to say, this teacher seemed to violate the student's right to free speech, which is also the conclusion of ACLU attorney:
[snip] 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. [snip] (Click HERE to read the rest.)

That sounds like a positive step for the Howell schools, and a better way to go about creating an atmosphere conducive to these kinds of discussions. I am glad to learn they are open to this

I'm glad Md. McDowell is aware of this issue, and doing what he can to end gay-bashing/bullying in his school, but there are ways that are more effective than others to accomplish that goal. The kind of intolerance he demonstrated by kicking the student out sends the wrong message, and will simply breed resentment, not enlightenment.

At least that's what I think. What do you think?


Connie said...

I think it might have been more effective to keep the student in class and talk about tolerance. Kick them out for gay-bullying for sure, but maybe that was a little extreme for expressing non-acceptance, which was rude, but at least not crude.

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

Amen, sister. I think you are spot on, Connie. How else are these kids going to learn? And just kicking them out will only make them angry, and resentful, not exactly conducive to enlightening conversations...