Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Open Letter to Howell, Michigan Schools Superintendent

Background on this topic: News article

Dear Mr. Wilson,

This message is to show support for Mr. McDowell and to protest his one-day suspension. McDowell acted within the professional bounds of an educator in restricting the speech of his students. The classroom is not an anything-goes environment nor is it the realm of fully protected free-speech that other environments are. It is the space where we educate and nurture our youth.

A message such as “I don’t accept gays” is neither educative nor nurturing and should not be tolerated in a school. This message is vastly different from “my religion teaches that homosexual acts are a sin.” Saying “I don’t accept gays” in fact completely negates the humanity of someone who is gay. “I don’t accept that you are my equal as a human” is the message behind those four words.

Violence against homosexuals is real. Whether it is the mental violence of bullying, the physical violence of assault, or the lethal effects of suicide, we are all to be held accountable for the societal environment that results in these acts. And these acts begin with such statements as “I don’t accept gays.” Let the churches debate over the sinfulness or not of homosexuality. Let the schools accept all of our youth into its learning and nurturing environment.

People are dying—no, CHILDREN are dying right now because of incidents such as these. The actions taken by the district against Mr. McDowell do nothing to help this reality.


Here is Mr. Wilson's response in its entirety (including a copy and paste of a separate news article):


Thank you for expressing your opinion.  I would assume by your comments that you do not understand the facts regarding our decision to discipline a teacher for bulling a student.   The following article may help you better understand what happened:
November 2, 2010 
Superintendent made all the right moves in Howell controversy
Union wrong to characterize incident as gay-bashing
By Steve Gunn
EAG Communications
     HOWELL - We knew Ron Wilson was taking on a big challenge when he left Cass City  to become superintendent of Howell Public Schools.
     Howell has been a hotbed for labor unrest in recent years, and it didn't take long for Wilson to encounter his first major scrape with the local union.
     It began Oct. 20, when students at Howell High School participated in a statewide "anti-bullying" day. A few students broadened the meaning of the demonstration by wearing purple shirts to signify their support for gay teens who face daily harassment.
     Jay McDowell, a teacher in the district and president of the Howell Education Association, also wore purple that day.
     During one of McDowell's classes, he chastised a female student for wearing a belt buckle featuring the "stars and bars" of the old Confederate States of America. A male student protested, saying the belt buckle should be allowed if gay rights symbols are allowed.
     The student went on to say that he doesn't approve of homosexual lifestyles, based on his Christian beliefs. Another male student joined the protest, and both were kicked out of class.
     The parents of one of the students contacted the school, and Wilson reacted by investigating the incident and giving McDowell a one-day suspension.
     "As the superintendent of Howell Public Schools, it is my responsibility to assure the fair and respectful treatment of all students and staff," Wilson wrote in a prepared statement. "In keeping with this responsibility, I disciplined a teacher consistent with board policy.
     "The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech. The first amendment and its application in school has been tested and upheld in the courts as long as it is not disruptive to the delivery of education. Defending everyone's right to free speech is not always easy, but living in a democracy rarely is easy. Regardless of my personal feelings, I must defend the rights of all students."
Misinformation campaign
     Predictably, Wilson's action was greeted with a tidal wave of protest.
     Messages rolled in from across the nation, accusing the superintendent of promoting homophobic attitudes by disciplining McDowell.
     "I've received several hundred e-mails, most of them form letters from different groups around the country," Wilson told the Insider. "Most of them said they were disappointed that we had to discipline a teacher who defended gay rights and the rights of teachers.
     "When I responded, and explained that I took the action I felt necessary given the circumstances, many of them wrote back saying that they didn't understand what really happened. Some of them were even apologetic."
     Most of the angry messages were prompted by misinformation spread by local union members who were angered by the suspension, according to Wilson.
     "This was a situation where the union president was disciplined, and because his actions were indefensible, they twisted it to be a gay-bashing incident," Wilson said. "It definitely was not that. Even our local diversity council said that this was not a diversity issue - it's a labor-management issue."
     The Howell Education Association issued a statement saying, "We...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 classrooms."
     That's not quite what he did, folks. McDowell staged a political protest of his own through the clothing he chose to wear, then became intolerant of students who disagreed with his position. If he didn't want a debate, he should have worn something different, or allowed the students to express themselves in a similar manner. 
     Following the incident, a local newspaper and radio station served the school with freedom of information requests, demanding copies of the investigation and discipline records.
     The union tried to block the release of the information, but Wilson found no legal reason to hold it and informed the HEA of his decision.
     "Personnel records are subject to FOIA," Wilson said.
     Wilson said he believes the union wanted the district to withhold records detailing the facts for as long as possible, so its campaign of misinformation would have more effect.
     "I think it was just a stall tactic," Wilson said. "The longer the correct information was not out there, the more it bolstered their letter writing and Facebook campaign."
Rights must be protected
     We don't believe there is anything wrong with students or school employees showing support for gay teens, who are frequently the targets of heartless bullying.
     School officials are correct to encourage compassion and tolerance toward others. God knows our society has a shortage of both qualities.
     The purple shirt demonstration was prompted by a recent rash of gay teen suicides across the nation. Perhaps by seeing a few of their classmates and teachers showing support, some troubled kids gained the courage to push on with their lives, despite the inexcusable treatment they receive.
     But as a teacher, McDowell had the responsibility to tolerate opposing points of view that were prompted by his clothing. He may have found the student's comments to be mean-spirited and insensitive, but in America we have the right to be mean-spirited and insensitive.
     McDowell was simply defending his idea of political correctness. There is nothing in the Constitution to back up his position.
     As Wilson put it, "Had Mr. McDowell told the kids that he was going to kick them out of class if they didn't believe in Christian lifestyles, I would have pursued the issue just as vehemently. It's a matter of first amendment freedom of speech."
     We were particularly troubled by the HEA's willingness to block public access to records regarding the incident.
     Too often school employees - particularly union leaders - forget that public schools are funded with public dollars, and the public has a right to know what happens in those schools.
     School employees sometimes forget that they are public employees, just as much as a mayor, state representative or governor. Their actions, particularly on the job, should be completely open to public scrutiny.
     Wilson did what the law said he was supposed to do.
     We have just one word of caution for Wilson. HEA leaders are known for attacking superintendents who make decisions they don't like. Not long ago they were successful in convincing the school board to fire a superintendent who frequently took tough stands against the union.
     We hope Howell school board members recognize a strong, principled leader when they have one, and keep him around for as long as possible.