Schools must enforce teachers' boundaries, keep students safe

September 23, 2011

 

Many years ago I had a teacher who assigned our class the task of answering the question: "How had slavery benefited black people by bringing them to the new world?"

He was a popular coach who was also known to use ugly racial slurs while chastising black athletes. If the school disciplined him, I never knew about it. I transferred out of his class as quickly as possible and felt ill every time I encountered him in the hallways.

That teacher came to mind as news broke last month of a Mount Dora High School teacher who took to Facebook to express his disgust that gay couples are now free to marry in New York. He called those marriages "a cesspool."

While some rushed to defend Jerry Buell's anti-gay posts as private, protected speech under the First Amendment, others argued that Facebook had become an extension of his classroom, since Buell actively made students his "friends" on the popular social network.

Would it be acceptable for a teacher to express disgust toward a particular race or religious background in a forum where his students were expressly invited? Buell cannot reasonably now assert that his hateful words have no impact in his classroom.

On the contrary, one Mount Dora student responded to Buell's Facebook posts saying, "This just made me more excited for your class next year. lol"

There is clear evidence that Buell violated the teachers' Code of Ethics and Principles of Professional Conduct. It is also clear that his classroom has long been a hostile environment for anyone who does not agree with his particular religious and political views. Reports of his classroom behavior from students themselves certainly warrant a deeper investigation by the district and the state.

Even some early defenders are backing away from Buell as details emerge that suggest his anti-gay attitudes and religious bias were on display in a classroom — a place he called his religious "mission field."

Buell's class syllabus warned students who didn't like his brand of Christianity to choose another class.

He went further, using the school's website to declare, "I try to teach and lead my students as if Lake Co. Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself."

Lake County schools Superintendent Susan Moxley has concluded that Buell "clearly crosses the line of separation of church and state that public school employees must follow. Future breaches and failure to maintain the separation of church and state may lead to more serious disciplinary issues."

Thousands have written to the Lake County school district angered by this abuse of power. Some expressed their unwillingness to spend money at Mount Dora shops and restaurants until this matter is resolved. Others recounted their personal experiences with bullying.

Bert Royal, screenwriter for the film "Easy A," which featured a character targeted by bullies, wrote: "I am a 33-year-old gay man from Florida. I wrote the movie 'Easy A,' which came out last year and lightly addressed how schools turn a blind eye toward gay bashing. Which is why I never made it to my senior year. (Or even my sophomore year.)"

School districts have two primary responsibilities: to educate students and to keep them safe.

What will the Lake County School Board and the Mount Dora High School administration do now to create a safe learning environment for students who are gay or those who do not share the same religious beliefs as their teachers?

Nearly 60 percent of Florida's students live in school districts that provide specific protections from anti-gay bullying and discrimination. Lake County students deserve these protections and have never needed them more than today.

Nadine Smith is executive director of Equality Florida in St. Petersburg.

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