Gay Michigan student defends suspended teacher

Liz Goodwin

A 14-year-old who issued an impassioned defense of a suspended teacher has become a bit of an Internet folk hero in a new viral video.  Over the weekend, gossip blogger Perez Hilton and several other high-traffic sites picked up the video, which features the dramatic testimonial of Ann Arbor, Mich., teen Graeme Taylor.

Taylor told the Howell, Mich., school board last week that he attempted suicide at age 9 because he was bullied for being gay. He was speaking on behalf of Howell High teacher Jay McDowell, who had been suspended for two days for asking a student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle and for ejecting two students from class after a heated exchange about gay rights.

You can watch the video below:

According to Livingston Daily reporter Jason Carmel Davis, McDowell was suspended after he ejected 16-year-old junior Daniel Glowacki and another student from his classroom. Glowacki objected to his teacher asking a fellow student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle. The school was participating in Spirit Day on Oct. 20, a voluntary event for students designed to raise awareness about anti-gay bullying. Glowacki apparently argued with McDowell over the request to remove the buckle, asking how his classmate's Confederate flag insignia was different from the students wearing purple for Spirit Day. The local union says the student also made "inappropriate and offensive statements regarding gay students."

[Video: Surprising voices behind 'It Gets Better' campaign]

Lindsey Forbes, spokeswoman for the local teachers union, the Howell Education Association, tells The Lookout that McDowell followed school policy in asking for the belt buckle to be removed. Teachers are supposed to ask students to remove "inappropriate" or distracting clothing, she says. Confederate flags are not specifically listed as inappropriate, but Forbes says the flag is a symbol of hate, especially in Howell. Two years ago, a group of students were investigated by the Department of Justice for starting a Facebook group that used the Confederate flag as its profile photo and featured hate speech. Two students were suspended. An area north of Howell also had an active Ku Klux Klan membership in the '70s and '80s, according to the Livingston County Press.

"It's pretty clear in our community what that symbol stands for," Forbes says.

[Related: High school drops the 'F' grade]

McDowell was suspended for one day without pay after the student in question complained about the removal of her belt buckle. The staff attorney for Michigan's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, Jay Kaplan, tells The Lookout that the case represents a "balancing act" between protecting free speech and creating a safe school environment, but that both students were most likely protected by the First Amendment. "Wearing [the Confederate flag] on the belt buckle probably is protected speech," he said, based on court precedents. "The situation where the student expressed his disapproval of homosexuality is also protected speech."

He said the "well-meaning" McDowell should have instead started a discussion about why the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate for so many and how denigrating homosexuality marginalizes gay people. The ACLU has offered to host training sessions for teachers about what the law says.

[Related: Spotlight on gay councilman's plea to bullied teens]

McDowell, who is also president of the local teachers union, is appealing the decision, and is back at work while his grievance is pending--a procedure that has been known to take as long as a year. Howell High is holding a "diversity forum" Monday night to talk about the issue. According to the union, the school has no specific policy prohibiting anti-gay bullying.

(Screenshot: Taylor addressing the school board)

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