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Purple Shirts and Confederate Flags

Sometimes, there's a very fine line between "politically correct" and morally acceptable. Just ask Juan Williams. Or Jay McDowell, teacher at Howell High School (Michigan), who sent a student out of his room for "disrespectful" behavior, after an altercation centered on--depending who you ask--a student's first amendment rights or a teacher's ethical responsibility to maintain a classroom where all persons are respected.

I have lived in Howell for 20 years, and can tell you that this is only the latest in a series of front-page school district debacles. This is a town that bonded $100 million to build a new, state-of-the art high school in 2003, used it for one year, then could no longer afford to keep two high schools open. So they crammed all 2600 students back into the old school, and rented the new building out as a movie set. "High School"--a stoner flick--was shot there, with breathless local news stories about seeing Michael Chiklis in Home Depot. The new school is now the set of the "Wannabees," a perfect metaphor for a community that wants to be all-American but can't get its educational act or public image together.

The school board also permitted the public savaging of a young teacher who taught Erin Gruwell's "Freedom Writers Diary" in her class (requiring parent permission slips and offering alternate readings). There have been months-long public battles over a rainbow flag hung in a classroom, and a high rate of administrative severance. Howell is a pretty little town, with a long and ugly history of intolerance. An incubator for the kind of folks who think they just took back their country on Tuesday.

What happened in Jay McDowell's class is a little murky. It was October 20, a day when McDowell and others at Howell High wore purple shirts, as a sign of solidarity with LGBT students who have been bullied. An argument with a 16-year old male student ensued; the boy noted that McDowell publicly disapproved of students displaying Confederate flags, and yet was wearing purple to support gay students. The student declared that he did not accept gay people, the point at which McDowell sent him out of the room.

The student was not disciplined, but McDowell was. From his official letter of reprimand:


"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. 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."

So there it is: a administrative defense of students' "rights" to express their support for Confederate slavery (in a town that went steady with the Ku Klux Klan). And equating those "rights" with a teacher's belief that all students should feel safe in their public school.

McDowell's statement:

"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."

The educational process has been disrupted by fear, all right. And once that happens, trust erodes, and the rich opportunity to use conflict to illustrate the great democratic tension between individual expression and human dignity and safety is lost.

The battle has escalated. Change.org has developed a petition, and the story is now national. The School Board has created some obfuscatory language about welcoming all kinds of diversity in Howell, goshdarnit, and declared that they're much too busy voting on things and solving critical problems to hear from people who want to defend McDowell at a board meeting. So go away.

Sometimes, being politically correct is the right thing to do.

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