Openly gay Ann Arbor teen appears on MSNBC with Howell teacher he defended
Ann Arbor teenager Graeme Taylor spoke on MSNBC Monday about his defense of Howell teacher Jay McDowell, who was suspended for a day after he ejected a student from his class for saying he didn't accept gays.
Taylor, 14, also spoke on camera about attempting suicide at the age of 9 because of fears of being bullied.
The Pioneer High School freshman has garnered national attention after prominent websites linked to a video of him defending McDowell before the Howell school board.
Taylor said he attended the 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."
On Monday night, about 150 people attended a forum to discuss bullying and other issues raised by the controversy. Many spoke passionately about problems from bullying, the Daily Press & Argus reported. Some said the district must "stop the bullying." Others, including school board member Wendy Day, said McDowell engaged in bullying when he ejected the student, the newspaper said. (Read the Daily Press & Argus story.)
On Oct. 20, McDowell told a student in his classroom to remove a Confederate Flag belt buckle. 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 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.
Howell Public Schools spokeswoman Kim Root said the forum Monday 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."
Video from Monday night's Howell schools forum:
The Associated Press contributed to this story.