Education Opinion

Purple Shirts and Confederate Flags

By Nancy Flanagan — November 07, 2010 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP