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South Lyon Centennial Middle School teacher Sue Johnson was suspended for three days Nov. 21 after presenting a YouTube clip of the hip-hop song “Same Love” by underground rapper Macklemore, which discusses struggles faced by gay individuals.
During her eighth grade performing arts class, Johnson selected a musical piece and facilitated a class discussion about it. She got the idea from an in-service training that encouraged teachers to start their classes with music.
Johnson told Between The Lines that a student approached her and asked if she could play Macklemore’s “Same Love” music video for the class.
“I asked him if there were any swear words, any violence. He told me “no” and I said we could go ahead,” Johnson said. “The little boy who brought it was so engaged. One boy raised his hand and said he had an uncle who was gay. Another girl said her aunts were.”
Johnson told the students that she knew someone who was gay too. “One of my friends whose brother was gay went to Miami Beach. He and his friend went to dinner and a couple clubs, and he was attacked – and he died. I told them nobody should have hate like that for each other.
“We talked about what ‘Same Love’ means. We talked about social justice. We talked about how the Constitution says we are all created equal, but can all people use our Constitution equally?”
At about 1:45 p.m. she was called into the office and sent home with instructions to come to the school board meeting the following Wednesday, but not to return until then. Johnson learned that a student had left the classroom to complain to the principal about the video being “offensive.”
“The Principal had the lyrics of the song up on a screen and had me bring in my union representative,” she said.
South Lyon Schools would not discuss the private conversation; however, Johnson listed the concerns the Principal had with the video:
1. The word “faggot.” Johnson said the principal told her that the “f” word is akin to the “n” word and should not be used in school.
2. The word “damn.”
3. Religious issues. The song talks about the difference between God’s love and a church that preaches hate.
4. Politics. The video encourages legalization of gay marriage, and the lyrics speak about “right-wing conservatives.”
5. The concern that the video and the discussion did not pertain to the performance art curriculum and that the topic might better be handled in social studies or health.
6. That Johnson showed the video without first screening it herself or following the district’s procedure of getting videos approved before playing them.
Johnson did not share these concerns, and told the school officials that she “did nothing wrong.”
“These are eighth grade kids; these aren’t words they haven’t heard before,” she said. “I said (to the administrators) that I never brought up politics or religion.”
The 56-year-old teacher, who has been with the district 17 years, was put on administrative leave – suspended – for three days, two of which were to go unpaid.
Assistant Superintendent Melissa Baker said that the concern is over the playing of videos without approval.
“While the District generally does not discuss employee issues with the media, misinformation about this issue must be addressed. The District has an established practice (included in the Staff Handbook) that requires the instructor to first preview any taped material to be used in the classroom (including YouTube clips), then submit a completed form about the proposed clip to a building administrator for approval.
“Further, the instructor is to identify the curriculum benchmarks that students will complete as a result of watching the clip,” Baker said.
Baker added that Johnson neither previewed the YouTube Clip, nor submitted the necessary paperwork for approval. “The clip had no relationship whatsoever to the instructional class content planned for that day. The purpose of this established practice is to ensure that instructional materials are appropriate for the course and its students. It is because we care about all students that we have this procedure in place.”
“Suspending a teacher for playing a song with lyrics like ‘love is kind’ and ‘if I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me’ says more about the school district’s intolerance towards same-sex love than the teacher’s judgment of her student’s music tastes.” says Equality Michigan Director of Policy Emily Dievendorf in a written statement. “I cannot help but wonder if they would have suspended her for playing a song that speaks positively of opposite-sex love or provides observations on the oppression faced by certain religions.
Johnson provided Fox 2 News with a letter from the District, which included a list of the topics they felt made the “Same Love” video inappropriate: homosexuality, religion, politics, and language. Johnson has been allowed to return to work, but could not be reached for further comment.
South Lyon Community Schools Superintendent William A. Pearson said in a press release later that week, “The decision to suspend was not made on content, but the expectation that we do need to have all instructors preview web-based materials prior to student viewing and these must be tied to the class objectives. We put ourselves at risk with various topics if this previewing does not occur … I certainly believe there is a place for controversial issues during the school day, and where appropriate our courses and curriculums allow for those discourses to occur.”
Pearson continues, “If students or stake holders believe this discipline is a form of bullying, will encourage bullying, or most importantly causes any member of our school community to feel they do not belong then I have sent the wrong message, and must correct that.”
“We want all students to feel they belong and that they are valued, and our policies and procedures must support this. I am willing to not uphold the suspension but the violation of the district practice regarding web-based clips and our expectation for instructors previewing materials under this will remain in writing.”
The following Friday, Nov. 30, Assistant Superintendent Baker announced that Johnson’s pay would be restored for the two days of unpaid leave. The ACLU intends to continue investigation according to Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT project.
Pearson says South Lyon Community Schools promote a culture of diversity and tolerance, citing the schools’ diversity programs, “Challenge Days,” and the policies of the Board of Education.