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Texas boy suspended for saying homosexuality is wrong

September 26, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
How do we balance the rights of kids not to be bullied with other kids' free speech rights in a school environment?

Earlier this month Dakota Ary, a 14-year-old boy at Western Hills High School in Fort Worth, Texas, was suspended when his German teacher overheard the teen tell a friend during class that he is a Christian and he believes homosexuality is wrong. The teacher was outraged and the boy was disciplined with a one-day in-school suspension and two days of out of school suspension. The suspension was reduced after the boy's mother complained to the principal. After she hired a Christian law firm and took representation along to her next meeting with the school administrators, the principal agreed that Dakota should not have been suspended and that the infraction will not appear on his record.

Dakota's mother said in news reports that her son is an honor student who has never been in trouble at school and that his comment did not disrupt the classroom, nor was it a personal attack on another student. She has told Dakota he must show respect to all his teachers, no matter what their views. After reading the accounts of this incident, I'd be curious to know if there's more to the story. At first glance the punishment seems unreasonable and a complete overreaction on the part of the teacher. However, a blog post at the Dallas, a website that claims to be the voice of lesbians and gays in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, gives what it says is the teacher's side to the story.

According to the blog post, the teacher had posted a "word wall" in his German class that included an article from a German magazine about gay rights that had a photo of two gay men kissing. In the weeks before the incident, that picture had been ripped down. Kids in the class had also reportedly made anti-gay comments, sometimes unrelated to what was currently being discussed by the class as a whole. On the day of the incident, the Dallas reports that the teacher claims Dakota Ary said in class, "Gays can't be Christians. Homosexuality is wrong," while looking directly at the teacher. The teacher said he respects students' rights to freedom of expression and is accustomed to leading discussions in which students express different points of view on controversial topics. The teacher apparently perceived Dakota Ary's comments as something else.

In other articles about the incident, Dakota Ary and his mother are quoted as saying that some students in the class were offended by the picture of the two men kissing that hung on the wall of the classroom and by classroom discussion about gay rights in Germany or elsewhere.

The anti-bullying curricula in place in many school districts all emphasize tolerance and acceptance of differences, including of students who are gay or transgender. In many schools students are likely to be punished for name calling and harassment and use of racial, ethnic and anti-gay slurs. It is important that students feel safe at school and that students who are different do not have to put up with verbal and physical harassment by other students. That kind of bullying should be punished.

It could be the teacher thought Dakota's words qualified as bullying or saw Dakota's words as a direct challenge to his authority in the classroom. If Dakota didn't do anything except quietly express a personal opinion, one that was not directed at anyone in particular, I don't think it would qualify as bullying. If he did make the statement as a challenge to his teacher's authority or as a slur against the teacher himself, the whole incident could be viewed in an entirely different light. Teachers must maintain order in the classroom and have a right to insist on the respect of their students.

Regardless of how this particular case turns out, I think the larger issue is that kids do not check their rights to freedom of speech, particularly of speech that their adult teachers or fellow students might disagree with, at the school house door. They also don't check their right to freedom of religious expression in schools. In an increasingly diverse society, schools must take all students' rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech into account when they write anti-bullying policies or they risk sending a very un-American message that certain kinds of speech and religious expression will NOT be tolerated in the public square.


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